Mahler’s epic Ninth closes festival season | AspenTimes.com

Mahler’s epic Ninth closes festival season

Susannah Luthi
Special to The Aspen Times

What better way to say good-bye than with Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony?

Typically the Aspen Music Festival and School season ends with a grand piece (last year’s season finale was Verdi’s Requiem), and this year’s conclusion is a compelling reflection of life’s effect on music. James Conlon, festival alumnus, former music director of the Paris Opera, and one of today’s preeminent conductors, conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s Sunday finale at 4 p.m.

Conlon’s interpretation of the Ninth Symphony, in which the dying Mahler explores ideas that form a vivid picture of introspection, is also the final work representing the 2005 season theme, “Self-Portraits.”

“It’s a quintessential valedictory work, dealing with the idea of farewell, death and the acceptance of death,” said Asadour Santourian, festival artistic advisor and administrator. “It’s a ruminative work whose preoccupation is death.”

Composed two years after the tragic death of Mahler’s 4-year-old daughter, which happened the same year Mahler himself was diagnosed with the heart condition that ultimately killed him, the Ninth Symphony says something that, as Mahler once wrote, “I have had on the tip of my tongue for some time.”

At 75 minutes, the symphony is also an epic, opening with sighing that’s like a dying breath. In the transition into the second movement, the breathing evolves into a dance theme, imposing a welcome contrast that pervades the symphony. As Santourian noted, it reflects Bach’s influence.

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“Mahler was very much preoccupied with Bach,” Santourian explained. “He borrows some formal, structural ideas from Bach, as well as the fugue. It’s a way of reiterating what he had learned.”

That kind of reiteration, showing the height of Mahler’s own skill in writing the fugue, comes in the third movement, called the Rondo-Burleske ” an allusion through dissidence to Baroque counterpoint. Finally, instead of leaving a strident, heroic statement, the last carries its listener with it.

“If we didn’t know that Mahler faced imminent death, we would still know that the music could not have been written except by one who is facing the ultimate test,” conductor Benjamin Zander has written about the symphony’s conclusion. “But the silence at the end is not the silence of death itself, or ultimate withdrawal, but of acceptance ” a peace that passes all understanding.”

The festival’s season finale takes place at the Benedict Music Tent. Tickets are $65, available at the Wheeler Box Office, gondola building box office and Harris Music Hall, or call 925-9042. A seat on the lawn outside the tent is free.