The Hartford Symphony Orchestra brings Mahler and Beethoven to the Bushnell

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In a recent New York Times book review, composer John Adams opened with this line describing Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), the Austrian composer and conductor whose mature works include nine symphonies (plus a tenth, incomplete one), miscellaneous, programmatic orchestral pieces, and dozens of songs for voice and piano or orchestra: "Idealistic, fantastic, grotesque, violent, tender, sarcastic, confrontational, confessional, [his symphonies] are among the most profoundly autobiographical of all composed music."

The essay makes for some timely reading; this weekend at the Bushnell Center, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra takes on Mahler's Symphony No. 1, often referred to as the "Titan," and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with pianist Behzod Abduraimov. (The biography, originally published in German by Jens Malte Fischer and recently translated into English, is timely reading too; you can also grab some of it on Google Books.)

Mahler's name usually ends up at or near the top of any list of self-memorializing composers. The composer himself, referring to his first two symphonies, wrote “I have written into them, in my own blood, everything that I have experienced and endured.”

"You have to realize he was still only 27 at the time," said HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan, when we sat down last week to talk about Mahler’s First Symphony. "To me, [the First Symphony] is both about his experience until that time, when he was 27, as well as his views of life. He was very into philosophy, science, he’s at the age that he’s asking these questions."

"If you listen to the beginning," Kuan continued, "even if you have no knowledge of Mahler, it sounds like the beginning of the universe, the beginning of life... You can almost relate to it from the micro level to the macro level, a person’s beginning or the universe beginning."

Yes, it's perfectly normal for a twenty-something adult not only to be thinking about his or her place in the universe (though in many cases, not much of import has happened yet, at least if you ask a thirty-something). It’s also pretty standard for artistically-minded young adults to toss those thoughts out into the world in the form of art or music. Mahler lived to be 51, not a long life, but at least it went twenty years beyond where Franz Schubert’s ended (he died in 1828 at age 31). Schubert, who lived for a few years with the knowledge that his health was deteriorating, managed to toss off a number of “late” works, all of them tortured and sublime. You have to wonder what the young-ish Mahler had to write about.

"I was reading that Mahler’s childhood was not the happiest," Kuan said. "His father was not the nicest to his mother. Later on, Mahler underwent a session of psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, and he discovered in that session, 'Well, maybe this explains why at the most sublime moment, I can never reach to the highest moment. I always turn it into, you know, street music.' It’s almost like for him, there’s this constant conflict with the sublime and banal. But that’s life, you know. At the most sublime moments, there’s an equal amount of the opposite."

Kuan, who’s kicking off her inaugural season with these concerts, remembers studying the fourth movement of the First Symphony and realizing that, according to her musical sensibilities, certain elements didn’t compute. "Structurally, it makes no sense," she remembered thinking. "Musically, it makes no sense." But then it occurred to her: sometimes life makes no sense.

“He takes you to that triumphant moment, and you feel like, ah, we’ve arrived," Kuan said. "And then it just dissolves. But that’s life also. We can all relate to that, being on the verge or even completely successful, and still life goes on, other things happen, you reflect, memory, and perhaps you reach to another greatness, but that’s what’s so amazing about this symphony."

Aspects of the composer’s biography do affect the way Kuan interprets his or her music. Of the third movement of the Titan, she wondered: How fast do you take this death march? Is it supposed to be sarcastic? Is it supposed to be tragic? What exactly was Mahler trying to say? She also views Mahler’s extended orchestra as an outgrowth of the autobiographical impulse.

"The reason he used such a large orchestra is because as composers searched to express their feelings about life in their music, they need more sounds, more vehicles, more colors, because there is more to life," Kuan said. "In Mozart’s day or Haydn, personal emotion was not the main purpose of the symphony. But when you get to Tchaikovsky, it’s very much self-expression. And Mahler is not just about self-expression. It’s about the world for him."

And that’s only the First Symphony: the work of an ambitious, slightly neurotic 27-year-old whose childhood may not have been that happy. That's just the beginning.

"Life goes on," Kuan said. "There are eight more."

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