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Mahler symphonies dedicated to love the spirit

| Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Picking favorites can be hard to do. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck says it's impossible for him to pick a favorite among the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.

"To hear what he does in the First Symphony and the middle ones and the last one is an amazing documentation of his life," Honeck says. "Still, he was Gustav Mahler from the first tone he composed to the end. They are all so different and all so authentic. I must say I love them all."

Honeck will conduct alto soloist Jane Irwin, the Children's Festival Chorus, Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 3 at concerts Friday to Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The concerts are the final ones of the 2009-2010 BNY Mellon Grand Classics season.

The first four symphonies of Mahler are sometimes called the "Wunderhorn" symphonies because of the pervasive influence of a collection of folk poetry called "Des knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magical Horn"). During the protracted genesis of the Third Symphony, Mahler considered including a Wunderhorn song that ended up being the finale of his Fourth Symphony.

Honeck loves the Third Symphony for its vast scope, which culminates in the spiritual climaxes of the final movement. He says the symphony bears some comparison with Joseph Haydn's oratorio "The Creation."

"The Haydn starts in chaos, grows to the creation of humans, and love is the main theme in that," he says. "It's the same in this Mahler, which starts in the way of creators with very cruel sounds, like in Haydn's chaos. Then comes what the meadows tell you, what animals tell you, then humans and angels. The last movement is dedicated to love, which actually in human life is the most important."

Mahler's massive Third Symphony is in six movements and lasts nearly an hour and a half.

"For me, the slow movement in the Mahler Third is one of the most beautiful slow movements in all of the repertoire, not that I want to be unfair to Beethoven or Mozart or Bruckner (symphonies) 7 or 8," Honeck says. "The Mahler Third slow movement is very special. It's actually more than what love tells me. This is not on the border of humanity. It's already above the border in heaven. But this movement would never have the same recognition or feeling without the movements that precede it. We need the other movements to go into love."

A good example of the emotional transitions Mahler creates is the juxtaposition of the fourth and fifth movements, the only ones with voices. In the fourth movement the vocal soloist sings words by Friedrich Nietzsche, "Zarathustra's midnight song." Although this movement has what Honeck calls "the desperation of darkness," it concludes with:

"Woe cries: Die!

But all joy seeks eternity!

seeks deep, deep eternity!"

The next movement is bright and light. As a boys' choir imitates pealing bells ("Bimm, Bamm"), a women's chorus sings a child's song with a "Wunderhorn" text about Peter in heaven and Jesus dining with his 12 disciples, before concluding with the joy of forgiveness and heaven.

It's notable that after using voices and words, Mahler concludes with the transcendent slow movement that is made with purely instrumental sounds.

Additional Information:

'Mahler's Third'

Presented by: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck, conductor

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 Sunday

Admission: $17.50 to $83

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown

Details: 412-392-4900

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