34th MahlerFest ends with splendid Festival Finale concert

Fifth symphonies by Philip Sawyers and Gustav Mahler provide fitting climax

By Peter Alexander Aug. 29 at 12:35 a.m.

The Colorado MahlerFest wrapped up its 34th festival season last night at Macky Auditorium (Aug. 28) with a splendid Festival Finale concert under the direction of festival artistic director and conductor Kenneth Woods.

After the planned 2020 festival was cancelled and the 2021 festival postponed from its usual May time slot, this was good news for ardent Mahler fans and other classical music lovers. The program consisted of two fifth symphonies—Mahler’s, and the world premiere of the Fifth by English composer Philip Sawyers. 

Sawyers was selected to pair with Mahler’s Fifth in part because of his affinity with Mahler’s works. He writes large, multi-movement symphonies that cover a wide emotional spectrum, and he makes each work a journey that leads to a definite conclusion. The emotional content is perceptible on the surface. There are distinct, recognizable themes and familiar textural gestures, all making his music welcoming to the audience.

Kenneth Woods and MahlerFest Orchestra receive a standing ovation for their performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. (Photo by Peter Alexander)

Not that Sawyer’s Fifth Symphony sounds like Mahler as such. He has his own contemporary style and harmonic palette. The influence of Mahler is more evident in the wide expressive profile of the symphony as a whole, and in his use of chamber-like moments in the winds. Like Mahler, he makes extensive use of march-like patterns, and the brass plays an important role.

Of the five movements, the Scherzo fourth movement is the most conventional, with scurrying strings and fluttering woodwind flourishes. A central brass chorale interrupts the rushing sense of movement and creates a brief oasis of calm before the rushing music begins anew in a varied form.

The finale is the most Mahler-esque of the five movement. Like many dramatic movements in Mahler’s symphonies, it begins in media res as it were, in the middle of musical and emotional turmoil. It is a complex, wandering movement, working out the issues suggested by the opening outburst and leading to a satisfyingly tonal ending disturbed only by the slightest suggestion of instability.

Parts of the symphony put me more in mind of Sibelius than Mahler, perhaps because of the lack of anguish in the expressive gestures. Among the hallmarks of his style, Sawyers often works in short sections than swerve rapidly from one mood to another. Weighty unison brass proclamations often interrupt other ideas, becoming almost a cliché of the composer’s style. 

Not that it is anything less than an attractive, intriguing symphony, well worth hearing again. The performance was delivered with attention and affection for the music. Woods and the orchestra made every expressive gesture clear and impactful, providing the full dynamic range that Sawyers call for.

With Mahler’s sprawling and powerful Symphony No. 5, Woods delivered just about the best performance I have heard at MahlerFest. With the exception of some iffy intonation in the brass—but who can blame them at the end of a very long concert?—and some smudged counterpoint in the finale, the orchestra was in top form from beginning to end.

Mahler famously said that the symphony “must be like the world” and the “embrace everything,” and that is almost true of just the first movement of the Fifth. It covers a dizzying array of musical topics, from ceremonial march to sentimental dance. It is this variety that makes Mahler’s symphonies such a challenge to a conductor, who has to maneuver an orchestra through all of Mahler’s minefields of shifting tempos and surging emotional fluctuations.

Woods handled this like the veteran Mahlerian he is. There was never a sense of tentativeness about tempo, any hesitation around entrances, or anything less than full commitment to the extremes of emotional expression. Especially impressive was the third movement Scherzo, a tour-de-force of high-paced peasant dances interrupted by a moment of pure schmaltz, and then a grotesque moment of pizzicato strings, each effective in its turn.

The consoling, gentle Adagietto movement was if anything less convincing than the more overwrought portions of the symphony. It was nevertheless the welcome calm after the clamor of the earlier movements and the ideal foil for the brash, jubilant finale. This was the Mahler that his most passionate fans expect, delivered with confidence and assurance. 

In short, this was a fitting climax to the long delayed festival. 

NOTE: Colorado MahlerFest has announced that the 35th festival will return to its usual time slot next year, with performances May 17–22, 2022, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor and the opera Bluebeard’s Castleby Béla Bartók.

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