The maestro on Mahler
Edo de Waart will lead the Milwaukee Symphony through Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 Friday and Saturday. Like everyone in the orchestra business, de Waart considers Mahler special. Between rehearsals Thursday, the MSO’s music director talked about what makes this music so important in the life of an orchestra.
“With Mahler, you must go to the boundaries of what you learned with your instrument,” he said. “He challenges every section. Everyone gets their clock cleaned. Mahler makes you go a step further every time.”
I saw and heard what de Waart meant before the interview, during rehearsal. He ran the orchestra through just a few bars of music several times to make minute but telling adjustments. He seemed to hear acutely every part in the rich mix. Through gestures and spoken instructions, he adjusted the pendulous weight of a phrase ever so slightly, changed a horn attack from a dynamic swoop to a firm, even declaration and reminded the violins to play a passage with bows up on the fingerboard, as Mahler indicated.
“It’s mandatory,” he told them. “It makes a difference.”
[An aside: About that time, Richard Hynson, conductor of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra and the Bel Canto Chorus walked by. What were you doing there, Rick?
“Just learning,” Hynson said. “I come to these rehearsals as often as I can. This guy is sooo good.”]
De Waart might have particular command of the Seventh — which some in the business regard as inferior to Mahler’s other symphonies — because he did it six times in September with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, his other orchestra.
“This could have been a nice coasting week for me, but it’s not,” he said. “I’m discovering this piece all over again for the third week in a row. It shows everything Mahler has, and then throws in the kitchen sink. It’s a lot of work, and of all the Mahler symphonies, it’s the least explainable. I have no epitaph for it. I can’t sum it up in a few lines.
“The first movement is a very determined striding toward… something. After the slow opening, it’s go go go. After 23 minutes of that, the second is Italianiate. The scherzo is a Viennese waltz, but something goes wrong. The fourth has masculine and feminine themes, they could be young lovers who meet in the night, but nothing is consummated. The fifth is completely crazy, and you must play it that way — with abandon, as if it were an improvisation.”
That craziness ties in with his long-range goal for the MSO.
“I want them to play with the full confidence and knowledge of how good they are,” he said, of his musicians. “That’s not Midwestern, I know. Musicians here are not cocky and arrogant, as they are in Amsterdam or New York. We don’t need to be cocky, but we should have a strong, quiet confidence. That I would be most proud to leave behind, and we’ve gotten there a few times. That what the Cleveland Orchestra had under Szell: ‘We’re not arrogant but we’re damned good.'”
Such a mindset allows de Waart to live fully in the moment and pursue thoughts in concert that he perhaps hadn’t detailed in rehearsal. This risky way to make music can lead to disaster, but it can also electrify an audience by, say, creating the impression that the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 might have been made up on the spot.
De Waart said he got a dose of that last week, in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9:
“They took the risks when I went further than I had before. That’s trust. This orchestra is very willing to go further, if I can just explain it and show with my hands where it is.”
Mahler’s Seventh can help with that.
“Mahler bares his soul,” de Waart said. “If you want to do him justice, you must bare your soul, too.”
Concert times are 11:15 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1-2, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $25-$79 Friday and $25-$95 Saturday. Call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206, or visit the MSO website. Links and details here.
Also on this program: Pianist Joseph Kalichstein will be featured in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra League and Boston Store will throw their Style in the City fashion and dining event 5:30-10 p.m. Lloyd Boston, of Jones New York and Lifestyle TV, will be the special guest and co-emcee, with Kathy Mykleby. Dinner at 7 p.m., cocktails and silent auction before and after. Dress: Classy business to chic. Proceeds to ACE, the MSO’s education program. Reservations are $125 to $300 per person. More info and reservations here.
Cover photo by Todd Dacquisto.