Columbus Indiana Philharmonic

Review: Hammer Blows! Mahler’s 6th

by Priscilla Weaver

Courtesy of The Republic

Multimedia & Music

Philharmonic tackles Mahler’s massive 6th SymphonyDZ7B4390

As maestro David Bowden walked on stage Saturday at Columbus North High School’s Erne Auditorium, the audience probably noticed a few differences from an ordinary Philharmonic concert.

To begin with, the stage was filled with significantly more chairs, stands and risers — and they were empty. Moreover, the musicians were not on stage warming up and tuning but rather sitting in two rows in the audience. Why, you might ask, was this the case? Because this was not to be your typical concert.

It has been a longtime dream of Bowden to conduct Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, a masterpiece that calls for an orchestra almost double the regular size of the Philharmonic. This is the year he got to realize that dream.

Bowden invited Mahler scholar Gilbert Kaplan to start the evening with a multimedia presentation, allowing the audience to enter more fully into the experience of the symphony. Kaplan’s lecture covered Mahler’s life and career in detail, incorporating photographs, drawings, score excerpts, musical examples and interviews. The audience learned about Mahler’s personal life — and the joys and tragedies that influenced his composition — as well as his career as a conductor and com- poser.

He explained the genesis of each symphony and went into detail about the four movements of the Sixth Symphony. The lecture was interesting and accessible and without a doubt helped audience members — and probably even the musicians — understand the music better.

However, the hour-plus length of the presentation pushed the performance deeper into the evening, and by the final move- ment of the symphony it appeared that the audience — and the musicians — were tiring.

After intermission, the orchestra — all 107 members — gathered on stage to start the long-anticipated performance. The first movement began with a forceful, angst-ridden march, and from the initial drop of the baton it was clear that the orchestra was engaged and in- spired. From the dramatic fate rhythm in the timpani to the glorious second theme representing Mahler’s wife, the musicians seemed very alive.

The second movement, the andante, had the “soft pillow”-like quality in the strings that Kaplan had described earlier. Toward the end, Bowden incited the orchestra to some beautiful dynamic swells before the quiet conclusion. It was in this movement that one noticed some slight tuning issues in the wind sections that became more pronounced as the symphony progressed.

The scherzo alternated between conflicting moods: the diabolical and the calm. In the final movement, the “hero” of Mahler’s symphony reached the end of his fight between life and beauty and death. The infamous hammer blows of the conclusion — executed here with a giant wooden sledgehammer — were performed by a percussionist hidden in the corner of the stage, but with his shadow projected on the wall for the audience to see.

Bowden chose to perform all three of the hammer blows; the last often is omitted in deference to Mahler’s own omission of it in performance. Unfortunately, the hammer was not always perfectly coordinated with the rest of the ensemble.

The Sixth Symphony is unusual among Mahler’s symphonies in that it ends in tragedy. Saturday night, however, was a triumphant performance for the Philharmonic.

Credit is due to Bowden and the orchestra for tackling such a demanding work and giving audiences in Indiana a chance to experience it.

The evening was a unique, enriching experience for all.