Aspen Music Fest season hammers closed with Mahler |

Aspen Music Fest season hammers closed with Mahler

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Percussion student Justin Kelly will play the hammer in Mahler's Symphony No. 6 during Sunday's season-ending Aspen Festival Orchestra concert.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

If You Go …

What: Aspen Festival Orchestra

Where: Benedict Music Tent

When: Sunday, Aug. 23, 4 p.m.

How much: $80; lawn seating is free

Tickets: Harris Hall and Wheeler Opera House box offices;

More info: Program included Mozart’s “Bella mia fiamma…,” Ravel’s Sheherazade and Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor, “Tragic”

The Aspen Festival Orchestra will hammer close the 2015 summer season with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A Minor.

The symphony calls for a percussionist to raise a giant hammer over his or her head, commanding the attention of the audience, and then slam it down, creating a thunderous sound meant to approximate the hand of God coming down.

In a footnote to his score, Mahler called for the hammer strikes to be “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an ax).”

During today’s performance, student Justin Kelly of Carnegie Mellon University will wield a giant wooden circus hammer to strike three booming blows on a wooden “Mahler box” created for the occasion.

The hammer, on loan from California Percussion, is made specifically to play Mahler’s 6th.

“There are many ways to do it, but one is seeking a distinctive, disruptive, awe-inspiring and terrifying sound,” said Aspen Music Festival music director Robert Spano, who conducts today’s concert.

When Mahler conducted the piece’s 1906 premiere in Essen, Germany, he found that the dull sound of the hammer blows didn’t carry far enough from the stage. In the century-plus since, symphonies have experimented with methods to produce the proper sound — using sledgehammers, wooden mallets, large bass drums and sometimes a combination of multiple instruments.

In her memoir of Mahler, his wife Alma wrote that the three hammer blows in the piece, which debuted in 1906, prophesied three events in the composer’s life that precipitated his death by suicide in 1911: his forced resignation from the Vienna Court Opera, the death of his daughter and his heart-disease diagnosis. Mahler himself experimented with various implements and various numbers of hammer blows in subsequent performances.

Music Festival percussion manager Brandon Bell in an email called the hammer blows “among the most unique and powerful moments in the entire orchestral repertoire.”

Jonathan Haas, director of the Aspen Percussion Ensemble, has performed the hammer strikes during his career using a timpani box reinforced with six inches of plywood and a sledgehammer.

“The box acts as a resonating chamber, then you take no prisoners,” he said.

Haas recalled that the turntable needle on an old Columbia Records recording of the Chicago Symphony performing Mahler’s 6th would inevitably skip when the concussive hammer blows came down.

“You would just have to go reset it every time,” he said with a laugh.

Informally dubbed Mahler’s “Tragic” symphony, one might wonder why the festival should end its season on a downer.

“There’s no redemption, in a sense, but there is catharsis,” Spano said. “There’s something of Greek tragedy in it. I don’t think we end defeated, but I think we are transformed by the drama that unfolds. We are elevated by it. Even if we’re not elated, we’re not devastated.”

For Spano, the season, themed “Dreams of Travel,” was a journey in itself. He said he thought of the travel theme as a way to perceive the season’s eight weeks of music, and a way to for students to think of their practice as a day-to-day journal of experience.

“I find I can never be here and then leave without having gone through some kind of rite of passage of my own,” Spano said. “So travel took on all of those dimensions for me, even though on the surface it’s sort of ports of call.”