On May 11, 2019, the HPO closes the 18-19 Season with Mahler’s Fifth. Gemma New conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, a powerful work that will see over 80 musicians on stage at FirstOntario Concert Hall.
Mahler’s works are frequently a favourite among musicians, particularly his groundbreaking symphonies. The conductor Herbert van Karajan once said, “A great performance of Mahler’s Fifth is a transforming experience.” In the weeks leading up to the performance, we’ll share our own musicians’ thoughts on Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 as they prepare for the final concert of the season.
We begin with five questions for HPO violist Brandon Chui.
HPO: For you, what qualities of Mahler’s music are most distinctive?
Brandon Chui: To the listener (and performer, for that matter), the music of Mahler presents a world of sound, emotional extremes from one end of the spectrum to the other in a matter of seconds, very much like the turbulent life that Mahler himself lived. He was considered one of the great opera conductors of his time and as such, knew exactly what he wanted in the execution of his music. If you look at the scores to his symphonies, you’ll notice endless instructions on dynamics, articulation, phrasing, character, tempo, speed, often with directions from bar to bar, beat to beat.
HPO:What were your first experiences listening to Mahler’s music?
BC: The first time I heard Mahler was listening to his eighth symphony at the Toronto Symphony. I must’ve been around 11 years old and admittedly, had no real idea what I was listening to. Along with his Seventh, the Eighth is the hardest to wrap your head around and for an 11 year old? Forget about it. But I do remember coming out feeling extremely impressed. I had just started playing the trombone in grade school and there are some absolutely epic trombone moments. The ending is unlike any other. When I was 13 years old, I discovered Mahler’s first symphony from a PBS broadcast of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Kurt Masur. I recorded the broadcast on VHS and I swear I wore out that old VHS cassette. I watched that Mahler two to three times a day, everyday. As soon as I got home from school, Mahler 1 was what I would turn on. It definitely took a little toll on homework. I got to work with Masur in 2009 and told him how he contributed to my bad grades through Mahler (and other PBS broadcasts through the years) and he seemed to be genuinely amused and pleased!
HPO: The strings take the foreground in the lyrical fourth movement Adagietto. This passage was famously performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. How do you interpret this passage within the context of the symphony?
BC: While many have thought the famous fourth movement (Adagietto) to be something depicting lament, despair or solemnity, we actually have a very strong clue as to what this movement is actually all about; in his personal score of the fifth symphony, Mahler’s close friend Willem Mengelberg (chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam from 1895-1945) wrote, “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was, “love, a love comes into his life.”
HPO: What other moments in the symphony should we listen for from the violas, or the strings more generally?
BC: Honestly, I think it’s unfair to highlight the strings. Sure, I’m a member of the string section, and we are highlighted in the Adagietto, but we are a part of the whole mass that we call an “orchestra”. We can’t forget to listen out for the famous trumpet solo, signalling to us through a fanfare in C# minor the start of the symphony and its Funeral March first movement, nor can we ignore the epic french horn solo in the third movement, and of course everything coming together for that huge chorale at the end of the symphony.
Great segue, Brandon! Check out the blog soon for responses to 5 Questions on Mahler 5 from Principal Trumpet Michael Fedyshyn and Principal Horn Jessie Brooks, where we’ll learn more the symphony’s noteworthy brass solos.
Be sure to see the HPO perform this momentous work live at Mahler’s Fifth. Tickets available now!