Yale Philharmonia opens season with Mahler’s Symphony No. 3
The Yale Philharmonia performed Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Yale Glee Club and the Elm City Girls’ Choir in Woolsey Hall.
Tobias Liu, Contributing Photographer
Peter Oundjian, principal conductor of the Yale Philharmonia, strided onto the stage of Woolsey Hall.
He lifted his baton, and low horns and bassoons answered.
On Friday night, the Yale Philharmonia, joined by treble voices from the Yale Glee Club, the Elm City Girls’ Choir and mezzo-soprano Kara Morgan MUS ’24, performed Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
“Mahler demands us to be everything,” Oundjian said. “He demands us to be anything he could conceive of that exists in the world, whether it’s wild animals dancing or the most tender depiction of what you think a flower might sound like if a flower could sing.”
Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is the longest piece in standard repertoire. Its colossal first movement alone has a duration of around 35 minutes and forms Part One of the symphony.
Part Two, which has a duration of around 60 minutes, contains the other five movements.
“To write a symphony is to construct a world,” Mahler once said.
To Oundjian, Mahler’s third symphony exemplifies this idea of world creation — the piece explores the “development of mankind’s sophistication” through its six movements, he said.
Originally, Mahler had written a program to the symphony. Although he dropped their titles before publication, each movement represents a hierarchical evolution of human divinity. The movements evolve from nature — the first movement titled “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In” — to flowers and animals, then to the torment of mankind and angels, before ending with “What Love Tells Me.”
The first movement featured a trombone solo played by Jude Morris MUS ’25 that starts off as a representation of “the voice of death” but evolves throughout the movement into something “tender and sensitive,” Oundjian said.
“This is the most important piece in [trombone] repertoire,” Morris said. “It is something that will change me as a musician.”
After the first movement, the audience broke into applause, which Oundjian acknowledged. He then took a break — Mahler called for a “long pause” at this point — before launching into the second movement. The second movement, which was originally titled “What the Flowers Tell Me,” is intended to evoke the image of flowers in a meadow.
The third movement, originally titled “What the Creatures of the Forest Tell Me,” is a scherzo and depicts a forest with animals dancing.
Morgan joined the Philharmonia in the fourth movement, pulling the symphony into a darker direction with her singing.
In this movement, Mahler used text from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Also Sprach Zarathusa” as lyrics. The Yale Symphony Orchestra will perform Richard Strauss’s tone poem with the same name on Sept. 30. Morgan sang out over the orchestra, at times cutting through the slow, rocking notes, at times entering wailing dialogue alongside a solo violin played by Concertmaster Jeein Kim MUS ’24.
The fifth movement opened with the Elm City Girls’ Choir singing “Bimm! Bamm,” imitating the sound of the real bells in the orchestra that accompanied their voices.
As opposed to their usual melodic function, the chorus’s “quasi-angelic texture” gets to become “a part of the instrumental, a part of the landscape,” said Rebecca Rosenbaum, director of the Elm City Girls’ Choir, who received a doctorate of musical arts from the School of Music.
The treble voices of the Glee Club carried most of the text of the fifth movement, which comes from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” a published collection of German folk poems and songs. Morgan juxtaposed her voice against the choruses’ carol-like song, again pulling the movement toward a darker place.
Both Jeffery Douma, director of the Glee Club, and Rosenbaum echoed that even though their choruses only joined the Philharmonia for a short, five-minute movement, their preparation was keen on fitting into the larger scale of the piece.
Douma said that the Glee Club talked in rehearsal about “Mahler’s concept for the symphony” and the relationship between the fifth movement and its peers across the work.
Douma also highlighted the Glee Club’s short timeline to practice, with only one rehearsal to put the piece together with the orchestra.
The sixth and final movement was originally titled “What Love Tells Me” or “What God Tells Me” — Mahler uses “love” and “God” interchangeably. The movement spanned 25 minutes and explored “every” element of human feeling, according to Oundijan.
“It’s about our sense of doubt, our sense of longing, our sense of beauty and ultimately our sense of the power of nobility,” he added.
Oundjian, an internationally renowned conductor who has served as the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, has conducted the piece several times.
He told the News that it is “almost impossible” to be invited as a guest conductor to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, saying that it is a music director piece.
One challenge of playing a piece of this scale, Oundjian said, is amassing a large orchestra of individuals who can express themselves like actors in a play.
“It’s that exchange of energy between the conductor, the players and the listeners that makes a concert truly exciting, and the musicians in the Philharmonia make this possible,” he said.
Timpani strokes and expansive brass chords concluded the symphony, and the Friday evening performance closed out with a standing ovation from the audience at Woolsey Hall.
Oundjian told the News he loves connecting with the audience and added that he finds this connection increasingly important in the current world’s social and political climate.
“Harmony seems to be the most important thing we could do for the world at the moment, and there’s a whole bunch of people who we wish we could get to listen to [these performances] and experience what it’s like to actually agree,” he said.
For this year’s season, Oundjian said he is aiming to give the Philharmonia a variety of performance experiences.
The Philharmonia’s next concert features Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja,” Adolphus Hailstork’s “JFK: The Last Speech” and Joan Tower’s “Concerto for Orchestra” — all pieces by living, American composers.
The Yale Glee Club and the Elm City Girls’ Choir will join the Yale Symphony Orchestra in April to perform Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.”