Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 has always been a riddle to my ears. The maniacal quality of the woodwinds in the first movement has barred my way to this music in the past.
Imagine our old friend Woody Woodpecker. Now give him half a case of Red Bulls to chase down about a dozen ephedra capsules. That’s the woodwind section.
Our old friend Woody
It’s not just the woodwinds in the first movement. The mania moves throughout each section of the orchestra. The woodwinds sound the most frantic.
This is a moment when the composer’s intentions can give us some guidance. The first movement is supposed to be somewhat vapid and superficial. Each of the sections of the symphony moves us from a lower to a higher consciousness.
Mahler’s Third is a roadmap.
Regarding the San Diego Symphony and their performance of this first movement on Saturday, May 6, it was a stunning display. When the horns stated their case on Maestro Ling’s downbeat it was obvious that this promised to be a special occasion.
As the performance progressed it became apparent that this was a piece of music which benefits from a live performance. There are pieces of music which, in my limited experience, can only be realized by being in the room. Mahler’s Third is one such piece. Recordings do it no justice.
It could be argued that this is the case with every piece of music. I would be one of the first to make that argument. However, the live effect is more dramatic with some pieces of music than with others. Which? Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Respighi’s Roman Festival, any Bruckner symphony, and every single opera ever written — to name a few.
While the woodwinds remained nervous I took a deep satisfaction in the trombone solo of the first movement. Why single out principal trombonist, Kyle R. Covington, for veneration? Because how often does the trombone get a legit solo? Well done, sir.
Yet while the trombone did have a solo, the trumpet got an entire concerto. Micah Wilkinson was nestled into the far reaches of the passageway in the upper right side of the house. From there his trumpet carried out a Socratic dialogue with his orchestral friends on the stage.
By the time mezzo-soprano, Tamara Mumford, began singing I was starting to “feel it”. Mahler was locking me into his progression of being. However, I was distracted by Ms. Mumoford’s voice.
I have often carped about the quality of singer which is employed for concert work. I’ve even stopped looking at singer bio’s before a performance, because if I see too much concert work and not enough opera work I immediately discount them as a singer.
This might be a personal flaw but I feel as though those who don’t have the voice for opera often find a tidy career in concert singing. Yes, I’m saying it. Opera singers have better voices than concert singers. I don’t think this can be debated, but I’m willing to listen to anyone speak on the subject and then tell them that they are wrong.
I get it. You don’t want to hear Brunhilde sing Palestrina. Or do you? Hmmm. Intriguing.
Let us return to Ms. Mumford. Speaking off the cuff I’m going to say she is the best singer I’ve heard at a San Diego Symphony concert. This is what distracted me. When she began singing I immediately thought, “Dayum, that’s goooooood singing.”
So, should anyone who attended the concert be wondering if the singing was good or not, Ms. Mumford in our new gold standard. I went ahead and checked her bio. It was as I suspected, absolutely filthy with opera credits. Brava!
There was then a Sound of Music movement with a bunch of “ding-donging” and we were onto the conclusion. Yes, yes, it would be more accurate to say The Sound of Music has a Mahler Third scene.
The conclusion of this symphony could stand alone as its own piece of music. It feels complete.
What was the music like? It defies my ability as a writer to try to encapsulate this music which represents what love taught to Mahler. All I can say at the end is, “Ok, Gustav. I feel you. Thank you.”