The PEI Symphony Orchestra brought its 51st season to conclusion spectacularly on April 14, presenting “The World of Mahler 3” under the direction of Mark Shapiro.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was voted among the top 10 symphonies of all time in a BBC poll of conductors (the composer also snagged another two of the ten spots). Nevertheless, Mahler’s third has never been performed on the Island before. There might be a number of reasons for that. For one, the first movement alone is as long as your average symphony—and there are six movements in total.
For another, in addition to the orchestra, the symphony requires a massed choir and soloist. To that end, the PEISO was joined by mezzo-soprano Christianne Rushton, Sirens and the Harmonia Girl’s Choir directed by Kelsea McLean, the UPEI Women’s Ensemble and Le Ragazze Girls Vocal Ensemble, directed by Sung Ha Shin-Bouey, as well as members of the Summerside Community Choir and Luminos Ensemble, directed by Margot Rejskind. The arrangement is the Canadian premiere of an orchestral reduction by Yoon Jae Lee.
To sum it up, Mahler’s third symphony is a monumental undertaking. As Maestro Shapiro said, we would be climbing a mountain together that afternoon, conductor, musicians, singers and audience. A journey, he called it.
The first movement is a trip in itself. “Summer comes marching in”: “Marching” is the right word. Mahler’s direction here is “Robust. Resolute.” The composer himself said “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Mahler’s third is meant to reflect the world from the single-room cabin retreat where it was written. Given the multifarious nature of the first movement, it’s hard to imagine that there were bits and pieces of that world not yet represented. But the composer had not finished, and there’s a lot of fabulous music to come.
“What the flowers tell me” follows, and we cross a bloom-studded meadow, as blossoms nod in the breezes—and withstand a few storms. “What the animals in the forest tell me,” next, evokes a frolicsome natural world, albeit interrupted by posthorn and military trumpet fanfare.
Christianne Rushton was superb in the next movement, “What mankind tells me,” singing The Midnight Song from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Dr. Rushton’s tone was exquisite, her control and connection to the audience phenomenal. From the depths of night, we awaken to chiming bells of the children’s chorus and the massed women’s choir joining the soloist for “What the angels tell me.” I do not know the specifics of the angel’s communications; however, an adaptation from a 17th century hymn was directed to be cheerful and cheeky, and so it was.
Do you know the song “I’ll be seeing you?” I’m convinced that Sammy Fain lifted his melody from the theme beginning Symphony No. 3’s last movement, “What love tells me.” (The jazz standard was published in 1938 and the symphony premiered in 1902, so we know who’s quoting whom.) Nevertheless, the echo resonates with the repeated theme, creating another layer to the famously poignant movement.
Mahler once expressed regret that it would not be possible for him to perform his symphonies for the first time 50 years after his death. That bit of time travel might have allowed the composer to present his works to an audience more ready to hear them than those of his day, which were not united in praise. More than 100 years since Mahler left this world, we seem to have evolved sufficiently, however, as whoops and whistles arise from so many of us assembled on the summit of the mountain.