Monday, June 17, 2019
Sun Valley Summer Symphony Tackles Mahler’s 'Face-Melting Shriek of Death'
Alasdair Neale showed off an artistic rendering of the Austrian-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler.
Thursday, January 10, 2019


The water in Alasdair Neale’s drinking glass jiggled as he touched his iPad, sending a wave of pulsating music splashing across the audience in the Community Library’s lecture room.

“I just hope I don’t break the library’s nice new sound system,” he quipped.

Neale, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony’s music director, didn’t unveil the lineup for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony’s 2019 season Tuesday night—that’ll come in a couple weeks.

R.L. Rowsey thanked the audience for “caring not just about the product but the process.”

But he did tantalize a full house as he presented what he called “A User’s Manual” for Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony.”

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which will conclude the 2019 symphony season in August, will feature the American Festival Chorus from Salt Lake City.

And the 90-minute piece will feature 10 horns, four flutes, five clarinets, four bassoons, 10 trumpets, four trombones and a tuba. And that’s just for starters.

“I’ve wanted to save it for a special occasion. I think 33 years for the Sun Valley Summer Symphony and 25 years for me is good enough,” said Neale, who is celebrating his silver anniversary as the symphony’s music director.

Alasdair is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony.

Mahler, who was more widely known as a conductor than a composer during his lifetime, wrote nine symphonies, each of which he started out in completely different ways. He wrote this one as a young composer, beginning it when he was 28 and finishing it in 1894 when he was 33.

“This is growling, snarling…a funeral march,” Neale said.

Symphony No. 2 wasn’t intended as a symphony but as a symphonic poem called Totenfeier or Funeral Rites. It sat around for five years before Mahler realized it could be something on a more epic scale.

It became known as the Resurrection Symphony as it evolved from death to rebirth.

The scribbles on Gustav Mahler’s score indicates that he was always revising, said Alasdair Neale.

Mahler had a morbid fascination with death, sparked in part by a period of time when several family members died.

“It consumed him,” said Neale.

In fact, Mahler once took a bouquet of flowers that had been given him and laid down on a table, placing individual flowers from the bouquet all around him. He then closed his eyes, pretending he was dead.

That lasted until his girlfriend said the equivalent of “Get ahold of yourself,” Neale said.

Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was one of his most popular and successful works during his lifetime. It was voted the fifth greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors by BBC Music Magazine.

Given that Symphony No. 2 had its origins in funeral rites, some of it is grim. But parts evoke Franz Schubert’s “comfortableness,” similar to sitting in front of fire with a cup of cocoa and nice slice of chocolate torte, Neale said, smacking his lips.

“Much of it is very lovely, including English horns that I think feel like they’re drawn from alpine meadows,” he said.

But you won’t get lulled into dreaminess as the piece is punctuated by jolts or surprises, he added.

“Sort of like a horror movie when you think you’re glad the nasty’s over, then ‘Boo!’ ” he added.

The opening of the third movement sets a sardonic tone as if the listener is forced to awaken from a blissful dream. And towards the end the mood changes dramatically, providing what one of Neale’s colleagues called “a face-melting shriek of death.”

But out of that silence emerges a solo voice focusing on a single red rose as symbolic of man’s pain and desire to be in heaven.

There’s a glimpse of heaven shattered by the aforementioned shriek of death.

All that sets the stage for an exciting finale as the Judgment is at hand and trumpets sound. And out of silence comes a magnificent blaze of glory as the singers pronounce “He who called you will give you eternal life,” assuring us that our struggle is not in vain as we will be rewarded in eternal life.

“One of the pleasures of playing outdoors in Sun Valley is that it makes it easy to imagine horns sounding like they’re coming from a distant valley,” said Neale.

Neale said he first heard the Resurrection Symphony when he was 13, and it “grabbed” him.

“I had never imagined music could have that level of visceral, emotional impact,” he said.

Still, he’s only conducted it once—in May 2001 in his last appearance as conductor with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

That concert, performed by teens, had a profound effect on everyone there, including one artist who was so moved that he gifted Neale with a colorful impressionistic portrait he painted of Mahler’s profile.

Each of the musicians who come from other orchestras to make up the Sun Valley Summer Symphony has played the symphony before—some, multiple times.

“I’m probably the one who has done it the least,” he said. “But the pieces you know well when you’re 13 stick with you really, really well.”

Given its complexity, the symphony will have three rehearsals—a high number considering the Sun Valley Summer Symphony typically has the luxury of doing only one run-through with most pieces. Other orchestras would have the luxury of rehearsing the Mahler symphony four or five times, Neale said.

Neale noted that Mahler was considered eccentric and extravagant during his lifetime but that he has emerged as one of history’s premiere composers, brought to a new level of appreciation by none other than Leonard Bernstein, whose hundredth birthday was feted this past year.

“History has the last laugh,” he said.

Neale suggested that Sun Valley Summer Symphony fans skip Netflix a few times between now and August to listen to various recordings of the work.

“When you listen to a long piece the first time, it’s really long,” he said. “The second time, it feels shorter. And the third time short.”


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