32nd Annual Bicho Concert to feature Mahler’s Fourth April 26
At 65, Edward Markward, conductor of the RIC Symphony Orchestra, refuses to rest on his laurels and continues to venture into what is, for him, uncharted repertoire.
Markward’s personal conducting firsts over the past few years have included a Bruckner symphony, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and, for the upcoming Bicho Family Memorial Scholarship Concert, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.
The concert will take place on Monday, April 26, at 8 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall, and will include one other work, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Soprano Patrice Tiedemann, a 1993 RIC alumna, will be soloist in the Mahler piece.
Tiedemann has appeared with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Boston Pops, Opera Providence, and Boston Lyric Opera. In September 2009 she sang in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. This is her debut with the RIC Symphony Orchestra and her first season performing Mahler.
Although Markward has conducted and sung most of Mahler’s “Knaben Wunderhorn” songs and conducted the Adagietto from the Fifth, he has never attempted one of the symphonies in its entirety. The venture has not been a quick study, as Markward has spent a year with the score and still values every moment left before performance time.
But he emphasized, “Learning any great work is a very enjoyable process.”
Completed in 1900, the Fourth is the shortest of Mahler’s symphonies and the most accessible. It is also the last of the composer’s works to draw on “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (Youth’s Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poetry edited by the poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published 1805-08.
The song “Das himmlische Leben” (Heavenly Life) depicts a child’s view of heaven and is used for the soprano solo in the fourth and final movement.
“The Fourth Symphony is not totally free from angst,” Markward commented, “But it’s more free from angst than the other symphonies are.”
In the background of Markward’s statement lies Mahler’s reputation for baring his soul in his music. Bruno Walter, for instance, who was an assistant conductor under Mahler, viewed the first four symphonies as “an important part of the history of Mahler’s soul,” with the Fourth embodying “a sheltered security in the sublimely serene dream of heavenly life.”
As a result, Mahler’s symphonies reflect a broad range of emotional moods in highly diversified textures. These textures are characterized by rapid tempo shifts, startling dynamics, and other discontinuities, as well as by a blending of folk and popular tunes with some of the most highly developed passages of Romantic writing. An obvious example of the last element is the “Frère Jacques” motif in Symphony No. 1.
In Markward’s words, “Mahler took Romantic writing as far as it could go.”
One speculation about the dichotomies in Mahler’s music was proposed by none other than Sigmund Freud.
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in his book “The Rest Is Noise,” tells of a combined walk and therapy session involving Freud and Mahler. The composer related a story about how he fled his childhood home to escape an argument between his parents, ran into the street, and heard a barrel organ playing “Ach, du lieber Augustin.”
Freud’s assessment was, “In Mahler’s opinion, the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind.”
One of the challenges in conducting Mahler, Markward finds, is the specificity and frequency of the composer’s tempo markings. Instructions like “broad but don’t drag” or “pressing but don’t rush” come in every several measures. Yet Mahler uses no metronome markings to serve as quantifiable guides.
Markward said, “One of the main difficulties in conducting Mahler is trying to figure out exactly what he means when he writes a tempo and gives you all these instructions. ‘With haste.’ How much haste? It’s that kind of thing, finding the heartbeat of the music.
“In one instance Mahler says there should be absolutely no indication either by slowing down or speeding up that a new tempo is coming, that it’s just all of a sudden there. That’s a difficult thing to do.
“And then comes the problem of communicating this wealth of direction to the players, in a limited amount of time, without talking too much, which is always the conductor’s bane: trying to communicate with the hands and the body rather than the mouth.”
There are some parallel concerns for the soparano soloist as well, as Patrice Tiedemann noted.
“The Mahler Fourth is a long wait for the soprano! Three movements and then the last movement just flies by,” said Tiedemann. “There are quite a few words, and at first I was a bit daunted, but I translated everything, including Mahler’s very specific tempo and mood instructions, and it started to come together in my brain. The orchestration is also very much wedded to the text, and that helped tremendously in shaping my preparation.”
Who are the conductors that have most influenced Markward in his approach to Mahler? That answer has changed over time.
Early on Markward favored Bruno Walter and Leornard Bernstein. Bernstein, according to Markward, was the one responsible for the mid-20th century revival of Mahler’s music, and athough he could lean toward excess in his interpretations, he had the skills to make it work.
Lately, however, Markward’s predilections have changed. He prefers conductors who keep closer to the score, and in particular, Bernard Haitink, long-time music director of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The RIC conductor said of Haitink: “He makes things work without doing anything excessive – virtually ever.”
Markward was also amused by one of Haitink’s comments on Mahler, that he had “a talent for suffering.”
“I never thought of suffering as a talent,” he said with a laugh.
But Haitink’s observation points to a peculiar fact surrounding Mahler; more than any other composer, his music is discussed in extra-musical terms, a matter of biography over music, so to speak.
Markward tries not to let those kinds of considerations affect him, although he admits that they are “on the palette, somewhere in the dark recesses of my subconscious.”
For instance, when it comes to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, he finds it hard not to think about why it was written, what the composer was trying to hide in the music concerning Stalin and what he was letting his friends know.
And it can get personal. When Markward was preparing Dvorak’s Ninth for this year’s Chester concert, he confesses that memories of the last trip he made with his mother to visit the place where Dvorak summered in Iowa did recur.
He quoted Tosacanini in regard to these extra-muscial associations. When Tosacanini was asked about popular perceptions surrounding Beethoven’s Fifth – such as its being nicknamed the Victory symphony or having suggestions of fate knocking at the door – he replied, “To me it’s allegro con brio” (fast with vigor).
The companion piece to the Mahler Fourth in this year’s Bicho Concert, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”), serves as a highly appropriate complement. Not only was Mahler a great admirer of Schubert, but both composers also employed song and dance themes extensively in their work, although Mahler embedded them in much grander orchestrations.
Click here to view clips of other conductors discussing Mahler.
Schubert’s “Unfinished” was written in 1822, but it did not receive its first performance until 1865, some 37 years after the composer’s death.
Several theories exist as to why Schubert left his composition incomplete. He could have been distracted by other works in progress at the time, or he could have been devastated by a diagnosis of incurable syphilis, which killed him at 31.
Some musicologists believe that he abandoned the symphony because he could not produce subsequent movements that could measure up to the first two, although this is unlikely as Schubert later composed a superb Ninth Symphony, the “Winterreise” song cycle and other high-caliber works.
No matter the reason, Schubert created a deservedly popular repertory piece that has given great pleasure to audiences for nearly a century and a half.
Another point of interest concerning this pairing of Schubert and Mahler is that the former represents the beginnings of Romanticism and the latter its closing episodes. This year’s Bicho concert, then, provides a rare opportunity to experience both ends of the spectrum of a movement that dominated 19th-century music.
A donation of $10 is requested for the scholarship fund. Seniors and non-RIC students, $5; RIC students, faculty and staff, free. For tickets, contact the RIC Box Office at (401) 456-8144.