A solo trumpet issues a fanfare that evolves into a funeral march: so, begins Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
In Woolsey Hall on Friday, Sept. 20, the Yale Philharmonia led by Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian will open the Yale School of Music’s 125th season with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Mahler.
The first piece on the program, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Four Winds, features oboist Stephen Taylor, clarinetist David Shifrin, bassoonist Frank Morelli and horn player William Purvis. All four musicians are on the faculty of the School of Music.
“[The Mozart piece] is so unbelievably elegant and has a profoundly beautiful slow movement,” said Oundjian. “It has a purity and kind of perfection.”
The work, which Shifrin described as “a nice sunny counterbalance to [the Mahler],” brings together five renowned musicians — the wind quartet and Oundjian — who have performed together for over 40 years; they performed the same Mozart work with the Philharmonia in New Haven’s Shubert Theater over a decade ago.
“When you know the music and the people well and when you admire and respect and trust the people you’re playing with, the collaboration will be really wonderful,” said Morelli.
The concerto transitions from spirited motifs to melodious runs where the orchestra both converses with and supports the wind soloists. While Mahler’s symphony calls for a large orchestra, the Mozart concerto will feature a reduced number of musicians in the ensemble. Although the Mozart work is generally attributed to Mozart, its authorship has been contested.
“One plausible theory would be that the wind parts survived and the orchestra parts didn’t and [the work] was reconstructed by some anonymous person back into an actual piece of music,” said Morelli.
Shifrin, on the other hand, “grew up believing [the piece] was by Mozart — melodic, beautifully constructed and reflective of his genius.” He added that no matter the piece’s authorship, he believes “it’s really worth playing.”
The second half of the concert, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, stands in contrast to the lighter character of the Mozart piece.
Ariel Horowitz MUS ’20 described the symphony’s texture as “thick and heavily orchestrated.”
Written in 1902, the symphony has five movements split into three parts. The symphony charts a journey from mourning to triumph, with themes such as “death juxtaposed with hopefulness and a sense of release from grief,” according to violinist Kate Arndt MUS ’20.
“Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is one of the epic experiences for humanity,” said Oundjian. “Playing Mahler is [its own] language, like doing Shakespeare. The piece is so beautifully put together.”
Performances of the piece last around 70 minutes, making the symphony a substantial undertaking for an orchestra to learn in two weeks.
Bassist Samuel Zagnit MUS ’20, called the piece “the first really mammoth 20th century symphony.”
Oundjian said that “tackling something really epic and really beautiful [would make] everything else seem easy.” When leading rehearsals, he emphasized the effect that differently “colored” sounds would have on a listener.
The opening bars of the first movement’s funeral march escalate into a stormy second movement, which crests into the multi-dimensional scherzo, which serves as the symphony’s turning point.
Describing the scherzo movement as simultaneously a “wild, schizophrenic fevered dream” and a waltz, Zagnit noted its swift changes in character and tempo.
The piece then climbs through the slow fourth movement “Adagietto,” known as a love letter to his future wife Alma Schindler. This is followed by the final movement, which builds to a triumphant ending.
“In the last movement [Mahler] uses very simple themes and all these different refrains, all joyful, witty and difficult fugues,” said Oundjian. When material from the “Adagietto” reappears in a new context, the result is “unbelievable, like finding a new light on an image you’ve held for several minutes and it’s all anew and somehow healed from all its strain,” he added.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony may be the Austrian composer’s most popular work — the Adagietto is considered to be among the most well known of his compositions.
Arndt described the two-fold process of learning to play together and getting to know the first-year music school students.
“We’re demanded to listen to each other and learn immediately,” Arndt said.
Friday’s performance will be the first of seven Philharmonia concerts this academic year.
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