Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Mahler 1: Titan”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Mahler 1: Titan” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Italian pianist Domenico Codispoti joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor” and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major.”

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion Saturday night, Maestro Cooper and guest pianist, Domenico Codispoti, discussed training for Mozart’s concerto. I appreciated Codispoti’s remark that people still “need to hear Mahler and Mozart.”

Maestro Cooper also explained the technical aspects of tailoring a piano’s tuning to the soloist, the orchestra and the work being performed. Codispoti spoke of the progressive intimacy between a pianist and his piano as well as the role a technician plays in that particular relationship.

Codispoti exited the stage when Cooper began to talk of Mahler. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, leading to this tribute by the WV Symphony. Cooper shared portions of Mahler’s biography with the sparse “Preludes” audience, particularly the prejudice the composer faced and how he combined the earthiness of traditional Jewish music with the elegance of classic Viennese music. One fact that was new to me was what Cooper described as Mahler’s railing against “the star system” – a common practice at the time of using popular singers rather than those whose voices were best suited to the material.

Cooper’s affection and admiration for Mahler’s music mirror my own, yet heightened by his own knowledge as a conductor and composer. He expertly compared the success of a piece of music to that of any great work of art or entertainment – to be truly captivating requires both depth and character. He ended with an architectural metaphor to explain the struggle a conductor and orchestra face in interpreting a composer’s structural outline.

I wish I could have recorded Maestro Cooper’s words to share here, as they were quiet poetic as well as informative. I encourage WV Symphony attendees who have not been arriving early enough for the “Preludes” discussion to do so in the future, it is the appetizer to an evening of fine dining.

Guest pianist Domenico Codispoti joined the symphony for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466,” the first performance of the evening. Like Beethoven, Mozart really needs no introduction. The composer himself took on the role of soloist when this concerto premiered in Vienna in 1785.

Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on the WV Symphony’s performance of the piece as I was seated next to a very noisy and flailing child. Try as I might, it was impossible to concentrate on the orchestra amidst such chaos. While I appreciate any parent introducing their offspring to classical music, it was a sadly jarring distraction for everyone seated quietly around them.

I can say from my pre-concert research Mozart’s three-movement concerto begins with a dark, syncopated rhythm championed by the string section before the piano eventually joins the orchestra. The second movement has an almost song-like melody with G minor operatic embellishments. And the finale begins with what is known as a Mannheim Rocket – a rapidly ascending arpeggio that begins with the piano then spreads to the rest of the orchestra. The drama mood of the piece rises into a jubilant lightness for the conclusion.

Judging from the crowd’s standing ovation, Codispoti and the WV Symphony did not disappoint.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan.”

Thankfully, a gentleman and his wife a few rows infront of me got up to leave during the intermission and they graciously allowed us to take their seats for the Mahler performance when I explained my child-related predicament. I’m so grateful for the kindness of those strangers, as it was an astounding performance.

Mahler is one of my favorite composers (surpassed only by Chopin) and his first symphony competes with his eighth “Symphony of a Thousand” (I’d love to hear the WVSO tackle that one!) as my favorite of his works. To say I was thrilled to hear the WV Symphony perform the Titan symphony would be a massive understatement.

Like many of Mahler’s other works, the four-movement “Symphony No. 1 in D major: Titan” explores themes of nature, youth, love and death. The title “Titan” comes from Mahler’s original concept of a tone poem based on Jean Paul’s novel and the symphony includes themes from Mahler’s own “Songs of a Wayfarer.”

A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler’s extraordinary compositions are full of subtle intricacies as well as cinematic grandeur. More than any other composer, I think Mahler utilized, emphasized and glorified every instrument in the orchestra. His use of woodwinds and horns is always captivating, particularly in the first movement of this work as the trumpets imitate the sound of a cuckoo.

Mahler’s gradual introduction of each section of the orchestra at the opening of the first movement has the effect of a just dawning sunrise – beginning with the subtle shadows and silhouettes of the horns, then a few random rays of light from the strings before the entire horizon of the stage is filled with the warm, golden tones of the radiant symphony.

The final portions of both the first and second movements were so exhilarating bombastic, I saw several audience members visibly restrain themselves from breaking the unspoken no-applause-between-movements rule.

Maestro Cooper took a long, dramatic pause before beginning the magnificent third movement, which begins with a contrabass-led transformation of “Frère Jacques” as a hunter’s funeral march.

The movement then blossoms into what sounds like a Jewish folk song mixed with a waltz – a superb example of Mahler embracing his Jewish heritage while simultaneously paying homage to the classical composers he revered.

The third movement melts away as the fourth erupts with an unexpected, heart-pounding cymbal crash. The final movement beautifully expands on the themes of the preceding movements before its triumphant end.

The WV Symphony’s breathtaking performance revealed nuances in Mahler’s work that I hadn’t picked up from recordings before. The entire orchestra is to be commended, but I must give extra praise to the trumpeters and other horn players for really bringing Mahler’s complex arrangement to vivid life. The WV Symphony’s rendition of Mahler’s “Titan” was the most exciting, chill-producing live performance of my life.

When I compose a symphony, I compose the world.” – Gustav Mahler

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But WVSO’s site had a link to this YouTube video…

WV Symphony Official Site

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