After the final moments of Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony come to a mournful, and then crashing, close on Thursday night in Silva Hall, don’t expect the musicians or the conductor to have anything left to give.
The towering four-movement symphony is the only thing on the program for the Eugene Symphony’s October concert, and outgoing Music Director Danail Rachev says that’s appropriate. He also says that this work, sometimes called the “Tragic” Symphony, is one of the most challenging musical pieces the orchestra has ever had to perform.
Though Mahler wrote the piece in 1903-1904 during a time of relative happiness in his life, the final movement is so intensely sad that the symphony earned its nickname at some point before its first performance in Vienna in 1907.
“It’s unmistakably not a happy ending,” Rachev says. “but I think sometimes we enjoy things like that.”
It’s one of several pieces that the music director wanted to complete with the Symphony in his final year here, and the performance of it is meant to stretch musicians and conductor alike.
“Number 6 is the natural culmination for what we have done in my time,” Rachev says. The Symphony has performed Mahler 1, 2 and 4 during his eight-year tenure. The Sixth is about 80 minutes long, with three 15-20 minute movements capped off with a 30-minute movement that, “like all of the Mahler symphonies, is about life and death,” Rachev says.
The orchestra is facing the challenge well, he says.
The Eugene Symphony last performed Mahler 6 in conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s second full season, in November of 1998 (thanks, Google)- but many, perhaps most, of the players have turned over in the 18-year time period, and the Symphony has been through three music directors as well.
Rachev loves conducting Mahler. It’s no surprise that in his final year with the Eugene Symphony, he would continue his exploration of the great composer’s works.
“We haven’t done something quite like this,” the music director says. “We did the 2nd, but I don’t think it’s as demanding on the players. This piece finishes with this ginormous last movement which is not only very long, but also very difficult to play.”
The Eugene Symphony is made up of professional musicians, and those musicians are paid to play with the Symphony, but that’s a part-time gig. Taking on something so intense and requiring so much energy and practice might seem a bit much, but Rachev says it’s a good idea for all musicians, and conductors too, to stretch their possibilities.
“It is very important for the orchestra to enrich their inner lives with this kind of piece,” Rachev says. “It will enrich the palette of the orchestra. The orchestra is like an actor; they perform new things, and they add more and more power and experience, and then when they play the next performance, they use that.”
The piece is famous for requiring a large percussive instrument, essentially a block of wood, and a rather large hammer. The instrument – the box hammer – is essentially a Mahler invention for this piece. Mahler originally called for three strokes of the hammer on this block, but after some terrible experiences in his life, he grew superstitious and changed the number of times it’s played during the Sixth. The Symphony’s principal percussionist, Tim Cogswell (pictured), is wielding the huge hammer.
“You’ll have to glue your eyes to the back of the percussion section for 30 minutes,” Rachev says, “and then when it happens, it happens for three seconds.”
The structure of the Sixth fascinates Rachev. He explains that Mahler, unusually for the composer, created some traditional structures in this symphony. “It’s completely clear. Here’s the first theme, here’s the second theme, then the development,” Rachev says. He laughs.“This is an unthinkable thing for Mahler. Then here is the recapitulation, and here is the coda.”
For people used to Brahms or Beethoven, that kind of musical structure is familiar, but for those who know Mahler’s earlier symphonies well, this is not normal. But Rachev says there’s always more to know. “The approach to form is classical, but the content is absolutely not classical,” he says. “The enormously powerful feelings, that’s Mahler.”
Rachev says he and the musicians are absolutely wrung out at the end of rehearsals and certainly will be on Thursday night. But he says it’s worth every minute, and he adds that the audience will likely feel the same, even if they’ve listened to recordings before.
“They will enjoy themselves immensely,” he says. “I enjoy it myself when I hear it live. You can’t understand the impact of that piece from a recording.”
The Eugene Symphony plays Mahler 6
8 pm Thursday, Oct. 20
Silva Hall, The Hult Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets $22-$68 (with ticket fees); college and youth discounts available
Hult Center Box Office or 541-682-5000