Mahler UnleashedNEC music history chair Katarina Markovic writes in retrospect on NEC's 2011 season of Mahler Unleashed programs, a project that mushroomed out of an offhand remark she made to NEC President Tony Woodcock earlier in the year.

Mahler Unleashed:
A New Year’s Summing Up

New Year’s Eve, Saturday, 12/31: So, very soon it’ll all be officially over—the Mahler years, the Mahler Unleashed festival at NEC, all the Mahler-ing that the whole world and many unlikely people have done in the past two years. So, while I still have a few hours of 2011 left, I’ll milk it completely, squeeze the last drop of Mahler I can out of our consciousness.

Gustav and Alma MahlerAll this past year, there have been days when I would suddenly realize, “Oh, today is Alma and Gustav’s wedding anniversary” (hard to forget for me: December 27, being also my daughter’s birthday). Or once, I was driving my car to Lexington to a parent/teacher conference, and all of a sudden, while getting into the Fresh Pond roundabout I almost had an accident because, “Oh my God, today HE died! It’s May 18! This is it! After this, what’s the point of a Mahler Festival when HE is already dead.”

OK, I admit, I am a bit obsessed with Mahler. It started years ago. I won’t get into the details of our courtship, but the point is, as with all such karmic connections, my life was at one crucial point saved by Mahler’s music. It was the Third Symphony. I was gazing into the score of the first movement and everything suddenly made sense: there is a point to life after all!

Serbian church ruinsIt was in the mid '90s in Serbia; keywords: war, bombings, refugees, electricity/water/food shortages, isolation, sanctions. Almost no male friends or boyfriends around—all were either on the battlefield or hiding from military recruitment in some cellar. But there I was, in my Music History class, thinking how the minute the class ends, I need to dash out and try to find some cooking oil to buy somewhere in town. The Don Quixotean scene of a bunch of musicology students analyzing sonata form in the first movement of Mahler’s Third (is there one? what’s the home key? what about the repeated intro?), must have seemed really quite absurd, almost straight out of a Bunuel movie (more on Bunuel later).

But, all of a sudden, the trombone solo at the recapitulation, coming after all the absurdities of the development section, wiped out any trace of doubt about the purpose of life. The celli finally took over and opened up the long-awaited D-major tonality. At that moment, all the blasé irony that we had shielded ourselves with in order to survive was blown away. Mahler gave me back belief; and belief (in whatever, for whoever, irrespectively) was the key to everything; it is the most precious ingredient in life.

I know it was the same for Mahler when he composed his Second Symphony—the “Glaube” (“belief”) theme in the Finale, for which he inserted his own words, is the one that guides the listener out of the harmonic labyrinth of striving for the final E-flat Major (that’s a longer story, which I’ll write about soon).

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!
O glaube
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!

So, getting back to New Year’s and the customary resolutions, it seems to me that everyone at NEC has resolved to put a moratorium on Festivals! We just ended a semester-long intense engagement with Mahler. There were more than 20 concerts, films, symposia, lectures, and all kinds of related events. Almost every department was engaged in collaborating on this project. There was just a cornucopia of events.

Yes, there were some connections that were not explored enough: for example, Mahler and film. Film technique and cinematographic quality are features of Mahler’s compositional style and some brilliant filmmakers have really latched on to this. Consider the opening of the Fourth Symphony. Our NEC Symphony and conductor David Loebel played it very well as part of the Festival. All kinds of theories are swirling around about this piece—naïveté, child’s view of heaven, homage to Mozart, neoclassicism—but it’s just Bunuel who got it and gave it its true meaning in the movie Belle de Jour (opening scene of Catherine Deneuve as Severine riding with her husband in a horse carriage with sleigh bell sounds; this scene repeats later again in the movie).

Mahler cartoonThere is almost no music in the film, just “found sounds”—sleigh bells, cat’s meow, traffic noise. Some of these sounds, like the bells, function—just as in Mahler’s Fourth—as quotation marks, separating the real-time narration from the stopped-time fantasy.

Mahler’s interest in “found sounds,” by the way, very much annoyed his critics at the time, as demonstrated in the accompanying cartoon.

Another cinematographic example is the ending of the Scherzo of the Third Symphony. The speeding up of time here is something that Ken Russell beautifully captured in the forest scene in his Mahler film (see the 3:00 mark through 4:10 in this clip). On the other hand, the disservice Visconti did to Mahler’s Adagietto, and even more scandalously to the fourth movement of Mahler’s Third, and Mahler in general in his Death in Venice, beautifully filmed as it may be, is not an example of filmmakers’ good instincts about Mahler’s music. And, speaking of karmic connections, right at the peak of our Mahler celebration, on November 27, Ken Russell died.

Hugh Wolff and NEC PhilharmoniaBut, there were indeed glorious moments: for me it was the Third Symphony again which, in the interpretation of the NEC Philharmonia and Hugh Wolff, moved me to tears, especially in the last movement (listen to it here). Jordan Hall was illuminated with some special hue that evening, maybe from the fact that it was absolutely packed and everyone was somehow anticipating something extraordinary.

It was similar at the opening night of September 26, which began with Gilbert Kaplan’s lavishly illustrated, humorous, and touching overview of Mahler’s life, which set the context for the festival.

Katarina MarkovicI have to confess that I missed experiencing the special atmosphere of that evening because I was mostly mortified to go out and deliver a lecture on the First Symphony’s original 1889 version, which was performed that evening. Even though this was my dissertation topic, and I was naturally very familiar with all the issues involved, getting up on the stage of the magnificent Jordan Hall on such a night and in front of so many people is not a natural situation for a musicologist.

I can just remember in a flash a bunch of fleeting images—the faces of so many of my students sitting behind me, while I, in a musicologist’s dream-come-true scenario made them play excerpts from the 1889 version, while projecting images from the manuscripts with Mahler’s handwritten revisions, and then asking them to play the corresponding spots in the final version; the completely full auditorium; random people stopping me afterwards, saying, some of them even choked-up, that they never thought they would live to hear a “new” Mahler piece.

Remembering these people’s reactions, makes all the superhuman effort that so many of my colleagues at NEC, and in particular Tony Woodcock, put into this project worthwhile. And just to think that this whole project started in such a haphazard way, through a casual and somewhat teasing observation that I made to our president at a Music History open house party last spring, when a video of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Fifth was playing on the big screen behind us and Tony for a moment dropped out of the polite chitchat that we were all having around the buffet table.

I saw that he was captivated by the music and I remarked that NEC would most likely miss the opportunity to do something unique in the two Mahler years. This, and the mention of “interdepartmental collaboration” involving jazz, CI and orchestra was enough to get this project started in the most explosive and determined way.

So, we started planning in May, for a 3-month long Festival starting in September?! That was sheer madness, turned into brilliance by an exceptional musical entrepreneur: “He had a wonderful flair, a marvelous faculty for seizing at a glance the novelty and freshness of an idea, surrendering himself to it without pausing to reason it out.” This quotation, by Stravinsky describing the brilliant music impresario Sergei Diaghilev, captures well my experience in working with Tony on this project.

What we did was different from anything anyone did during these two Mahler years, different from Vienna, Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, Stuttgart, Salzburg: we didn’t just play a bunch of Mahler’s symphonies and songs, but rather, we lived through all the different aspects of what such a person and artist as Mahler means today: we, of course, celebrated his music, but we also exploded his head! We picked his brain, tried to see what’s inside: his teachers and colleagues, his wife, his rivals, his time and cities, traditions and his quirky changes thereof, his likes and dislikes.

We couldn’t let go of the Wunderhorn Lieder—we did them four times in different versions (once as a jazz arrangement!), mirroring Mahler’s obsession with them. We wanted to see what happened later—who reacted how to his music: Schnittke’s Piano Quartet, Schoenberg’s Six Pieces Op. 19, Webern’s chamber music. And then how these reactions impacted subsequent generations of composers, Mahler’s spiritual grandchildren and great-grandchildren: Nathaniel Stookey’s crazy, yet irresistible Mahl/er/werk, John Heiss’s and Catherine Balch’s chains of “little pieces.”

Some of the NEC great-grandchildren had fun mounting an unorthodox student-generated and student-run “Mahler Remixed” concert, which ended with a sitar/DJ/Mahler Fourth jam session and dance party. And then, to the surprise of all of us, Mahler seemed also to be inspiring improvisers of all kinds… jazz, Third Stream, folk, bluegrass. It all makes sense, of course—Mahler himself was an improvisateur de luxe, even if he annotated minutely his own scores.

Ran BlakeAnd what finally convinced me that this was all worth doing was hearing Ran Blake’s “Mahler Noir” at the end of the eclectic “Mahler in Chinatown” concert (clarification of this title: still pending). To hear Mahler’s music embedded in Ran’s inimitable harmonies and timbres, through his own mirror of the Mahlerian hope/horror, sublime/absurd polarities, showed that even without recognizing bits and pieces of his music (like in Stookey or Berio), Mahler is not just going to be an admired composer of the past, but somehow will continue to save people’s lives when they least expect it and most need it, even beyond the “Mahler year.”

Once he is “unleashed,” anything is possible. Stay tuned…