James Conlon brings the heroic Mahler into focus

James Conlon, backstage at Music Hall, offered insights into Mahler’s Symphony No. 1

James Conlon was back in Cincinnati, and he was beaming. Before sitting down to offer his thoughts on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “The Titan,” which he will conduct this weekend with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, he offered a whirlwind tour of the new, somewhat spare dressing rooms in the old Green Room area backstage at Music Hall.

“It’s wonderful to see my old friends. It’s wonderful to see the orchestra,” he said, clearly touched to be back in the hall where he worked for so long. Music Hall closed for a 16-month renovation after his final concert as May Festival Music director in 2016.

Earlier this week, Conlon had surprised the May Festival Chorus by popping into a rehearsal.

“It was very emotional,” said Conlon, who headed the festival for an unprecedented 37 years.

It was going to take time to get accustomed to a hall he has known for 40 years, he admitted. Still, he was adjusting to the new acoustical sound in Springer Auditorium, observing that “it’s a more direct sound… You give a beat, and you get the sound right back at you.”

The busy maestro had just conducted in Hamburg in the impressive new Elbphilharmonie. He is now in his 11th season with the Los Angeles Opera, and spends several months during the year in Torino, Italy, where he is principal conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra.

“This is a typical year,” he said. “In the spring I’ll go to Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, and I’m going back to my old orchestra in Rotterdam, which is now 100 years old.”

Summers, he adds, are not as pressured. Last summer, he went back to conduct at the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony, where he served as music director for a decade.

But chief on his mind was Mahler.

Conlon leading a rehearsal of the CSO this week in Music Hall. Photo thanks to Diana Maria Lara

Conlon spoke about why Mahler is close to his heart:

“Mahler has been a basic part of my conducting life from my 20s, and my awareness of Mahler started as a teenager. I don’t know the exact number of performances; I think it’s between 300 and 400 performances of Mahler symphonies altogether. I’ve done three complete cycles – one with the Chicago Symphony, one with my orchestra in Cologne and one with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. … So it’s been with me all my life.

“It’s been described as a great novel with, depending on how you count, 11 or 12 chapters.

“I see (Symphony No. 1) as the beginning of life. The Hero, which of course was Mahler, is in a prenatal state in the beginning, one with nature. I see it as a great landscape in the beginning. And because there are songs and we know the context of the songs, the optimism of the first two movements is carefree. A cloud comes in the middle of the first movement, to suggest that he’ll pick up that cloud in the fourth movement.

“Between the second and third movements, (Mahler) found the hair in the soup. That’s where he discovered that life actually is bitter. So it completely changes. This is where you get Mahler as the master of the macabre, and the struggle with life and death.

“It is, by the way, the first march. Marches are in every one of his symphonies and this one is a very subtle one, a quiet one. But the march is the metaphor for the inevitability of time and life, and the inevitability of death. Yet, there is the driving force of life.

“Mahler’s spiritual crisis is the last movement, and that’s where it really becomes Mahler. The struggling with existential questions, of physical questions — he pictures himself as being angry with God. The heroic Mahler comes into focus, really for the first time, and ultimately, triumphs. A lot of people think of Mahler as morbid, but most Mahler symphonies end with a sense of spiritual triumph.

“He struggled, but he wrote music about the triumphant hope. That’s why it’s so important for us.”

James Conlon leads the CSO at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300, cincinnatisymphony.org

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