Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pounding out the Right Beat for Mahler

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pounding out the Right Beat for Mahler

Article excerpt

How many times can a hero get back up after being knocked down? Rocky Balboa picked himself off the canvas numerous times, and Charlie Brown brushed off the grass time and again after Lucy pulled that football away.

The heroes written into the scores of classical music compositions (how's that for a transition?) can be resilient, too. Symphonies are often meant to be read metaphorically as struggles against fate or obstacles. Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth knocks its protagonist down repeatedly before it ends victoriously. The principal character implied in Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Sixth ultimately gets cut down, hence the subtitle, "Pathetique."

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's music director Manfred Honeck loves to push the envelope to bring out these underlying programmatic stories, especially those of the prominent Viennese composer Gustav Mahler. The last concert of the 2011-12 season gave him a particularly fruitful opportunity with performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

In Mahler's nine completed symphonies, only one doesn't end well for the main character, whether it be an earthy victory or a spiritual transformation. That exception is the aptly named "Tragic" Symphony, the Sixth, finished in 1904. But "finished" is a relative term for Mahler, who repeatedly revised his works following their premieres. Symphony No. 6 went through a particularly crushing revision, so to speak.

The finale of the "Tragic" calls for an intimidating, large mallet -- the kind used in those iconic vertical strength tests at carnivals -- to strike a large wooden box. The blows come at climatic moments when the hero seems to have prevailed over great struggles. The PSO had to build a "hammerbox" for the purpose. The sound is less loud than it is reverberant, and when held by both hands by percussionist Andrew Reamer, the flying hammer gets the point across visually, too. "It is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled," his wife, Alma Mahler, recalls in her memoirs. "Those were his words."

Yet the printed score calls for only two "hammerschlage" or "hammer blows," not three. It appears that the famously superstitious Mahler removed the final one after the premiere in Essen, Germany, in 1906. …

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