Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Composer: Gustav Mahler
Conductor: Josep Caballé-Domenech
Date: April 22, 2017
Before going to see this performance, I knew very little about Gustav Mahler. Because of a Tom Lehrer song (see video below), I knew he was married to a woman named Alma, and I knew he composed a piece called “Das Lied von der Erde.” And while I still know little about Gustav Mahler, I can make some interesting assumptions based on how he composed. After all, when a piece requires over 100 instruments, including two harps, two timpani, a celesta, and an instrument specially made for this singular symphony, you can tell Mahler didn’t conform to traditional standards.
I can practically hear him instructing his orchestra. I can hear him saying he wants more cowbell, because dang if there isn’t plenty of cowbell in his 6th symphony. The richness and diversity of sound produced by this large orchestra leaves the listener with many instruments on which to focus. I’m sure repeated listenings of this symphony will provide each audience member with something new to discover. At the very least, what is colloquially known as the “Mahler Box” is an experience unlike any other. An instrument described as “loud, resonant, and lacking any metal,” the Mahler Box is simply a wooden box struck by a wooden hammer. The one played during this performance certainly fit Mahler’s requirements.
As for the piece itself, the Symphony No. 6 in A minor is an epic piece in scale and length. With certain movements lasting upward of thirty minutes, it’s surprising how well paced the piece is. From the “aggressive” first movement that sets the stage in the march of both military and death (aptly combined here to prove a point), the symphony transitions into a slower movement full of reflection and deep thought. At this point, the third movement revs up the energy to lead into the Finale, which could only be possible with each of the previous movements supporting it. While I will say that I did enjoy the piece and I think the Finale was the best part of the whole symphony, Mahler didn’t know how or when to end it. There were a few good places to stop, but it just kept going. Still, when it did finally end, you certainly knew it.