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Gilbert, PSO showcase Mahler symphony

The path to transcendence in Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony makes it a perfect choice for this weekend's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra "Music for the Spirit" concert led by Sir Gilbert Levine.

The concert series was begun after Levine took the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to Rome for Pope John Paul II's "Concert of Reconciliation" on Jan. 17, 2004, that featured Mahler's Second Symphony ("Resurrection"). The historic concert was the first by an American orchestra at the Vatican, and the first at which a pope had asked for an encore.

The composer knew he was building on his "Resurrection" Symphony when he wrote his next one, and that he had written music of even greater scope.

"Mahler's Third Symphony is very, very close to my heart," Levine says. "I became a conductor because of Leonard Bernstein and his Young People's Concerts. Bernstein was America's window into Mahler."

Mahler had important advocates before Bernstein, including his disciple Bruno Walter and Pittsburgh Symphony music director William Steinberg. But Bernstein's 1961 recording of Mahler's Third was groundbreaking, proving it to be a neglected masterpiece and leading to all of the composer's symphonies joining the standard repertoire.

Saturday's performance of the piece will be the sixth since the Pittsburgh Orchestra was formed in 1896 -- the same year Mahler wrote it. Steinberg led the local premiere in 1972.

Levine said the Mahler Second Symphony in Rome showed what a great Mahler orchestra the Pittsburgh Symphony is, mentioning the articulations and other nuances of the strings and also the brass and winds, as well as its tradition of great music directors.

The composer was 36 years old when he wrote his Third Symphony during a summer vacation. His day job was conductor, mainly of opera, leaving only summers to put his creative ideas into finished shape. Mahler would get away from urban bustle by renting a cottage on a lake with nearby mountains for hiking. He loved nature and being able to concentrate.

"Can you imagine a brain of the creative power of Mahler's spending a year contemplating music he would write during the summer?" Levine asks.

The music Mahler planned during the 1895-96 concert season that will be played Saturday at Heinz Hall attempts nothing less than an encompassing vision of the world. The composer had working titles for each of the six movements, with titles such as "What Nature Tells Me," "What Flowers Tell Me," concluding with a movement about the love of God for mankind.

Yet Mahler suppressed his program, as he did for all his symphonies, because "they are only one window on the music and he didn't want to limit the audience," Levine says. Or as another composer, Felix Mendelssohn, once commented, "If words could express what I had to say I wouldn't have needed to write the music."

Although solo and choral singing carry the fourth and fifth movements, Levine emphasizes that Mahler's finale "almost goes back on (Ludwig van) Beethoven's Ninth Symphony -- which bursts into song. Mahler concludes by showing a vision of the soul -- purely instrumentally."

Additional Information:

'Music for the Spirit

Featuring: Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano; Children's Festival Chorus; Mendelssohn Choir; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Sir Gilbert Levine, conductor

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $15-$40

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org

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