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KC STAR: Symphony takes on Mahler’s music of the night

With the Mahler Seventh, the Kansas City Symphony has performed all but two of Mahler’s nine symphonies. Todd RosenbergBY PATRICK NEAS
Special to The Star
January 21, 2018 08:00 AM
Updated January 18, 2018 04:33 PM

It has been said that every symphony by Gustav Mahler is a universe. The Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern will explore Mahler’s universe of light and shadow, his Symphony No. 7, Jan. 26-28 at Helzberg Hall.

Mahler began composing the Symphony No. 7 in 1904 when he was riding high in his private life and professional career. At the time, Mahler was serving as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera and was also gaining recognition internationally as a conductor and a composer. His second daughter was born in June 1904, and that summer he took a break from his hectic life in Vienna to escape to his lakeside retreat in the Carinthian mountains. It was in his isolated composing hut there that he wrote the second and fourth movements of the seventh symphony.

Composer Gustav Mahler’s stormy life is reflected in his Symphony No. 7. File photoComposer Gustav Mahler’s stormy life is reflected in his Symphony No. 7.

Mahler’s contented life was not to last, however. Over the next three years, as he completed and revised the symphony, Mahler’s life took a dark turn. For a variety of reasons, some related to his demanding personality, the Viennese music community became hostile to Mahler, and he had to resign his position with the Court Opera. Mahler’s first daughter died of scarlet fever in 1907, and that year he also learned he was afflicted with an incurable heart ailment.

By the time the Symphony No. 7 was first performed in 1908, Mahler’s revisions had significantly toned down the original optimism of the work.

The Seventh is sometimes known as “Song of the Night,” a title not given or approved by the composer but not altogether inappropriate. The long first movement is moody and tense, and Mahler did call the second and fourth movements “Nachtmusik.” Mahler said he was hoping to convey an atmosphere of wandering by night similar to that in Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”

One of the delights of the symphony is the fourth movement, Nachtmusik II, featuring the mandolin, which will be played by Beau Bledsoe. The movement evokes a scene of nocturnal serenaders that is charming and a little bit creepy.

After the preceding shadows and darkness, the finale is a joyful eruption of daylight. Basically a rondo with eight variations, the final movement has a herky-jerky quality, with many surprising false starts and parodies of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.” The long, strange ride comes to an end with jubilant, clanging bells.

With the Mahler Seventh, the Kansas City Symphony is nearing the end of its traversal of Mahler’s nine symphonies. After Mahler’s Third next season, the only symphony remaining is No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand.” Stern tells me that symphony might not be performed because the Helzberg Hall stage is not large enough to contain the vast forces required. He’s hopeful, however, that some sort of accommodation can be arranged.

In the meantime, let’s savor every glorious Mahlerian moment Stern and the Kansas City Symphony have to offer.

8 p.m. Jan. 26 and 27 and 2 p.m. Jan. 28. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$85. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.

Read the full article on The Star website.