Thierry Fischer reflects on the Mahler Cycle
When I think of embarking on this Mahler cycle with the Utah Symphony, I can say that performing and recording his First symphony proved an powerful experience. Performing his Second symphony was an unforgettable one. I loved the sense of struggle this week presented, which proves that it is not just about aesthetics.
To have performed the Second Symphony so early in the cycle means at once everything and nothing. It raises many questions, and sets the bar very high. It changed people, and provided a metaphysical experience which still remains in us. I’m very pleased that we decided to perform the symphonies chronologically, and I really feel as if we are going through Mahler’s life in two years. In this short span of time, we are performing all his nine symphonies, and we need to compress ourselves into an experience which may not be possible to describe in words.
Mahler took more than six years to finish his Second symphony. What strikes me is the notion that he loved it above all his symphonies, and that it was symbolic for him. It was the prototype for all his symphonies. You can feel the flow in it; it does not seem like five separate movements, or something impermeable.
Mahler harboured the idea of eternity within himself. It was not just about writing music for him. “The one who can read my symphonies will know everything about me” he once said. For Mahler it was only a vision: the abstract idea of light, and especially of the light which you can not see. This reflects my own approach to life and death.
There are a lot of antagonistic forces in this piece. When I conducted this symphony, sometimes I would feel cold on stage, and at other times boiling hot. I was very surprised by this physical effect. In my mind, the fact that Mahler was also ambitious with regards to this symphony also represents ambiguity. This is reflected by his conversion from his Jewish tradition to Catholicism in order to take up his position in Vienna.
It is his only piece which represents completely Christian ideas, namely the concepts of eternal life and resurrection. In fact, it is the only piece where he agrees with this notion.
There is the idea that truth is always changing, and that the world is full of anguish. In this symphony, Mahler believes in theological answers. We can see him consumed by the inevitable pace and progression of his own life. When I listen to Mahler’s music, or when I study it, I find the answers to all these existential questions. There is no further need for questions. I attain a mental clarity which is absolute.
The symphony’s Finale feels to me like a disintegration of tension, or even some very naive art. Everything collapses at the end.
Again, it raises the question as to how art teaches us. It does not teach us though formalism, but through exceptional experiences. The opening bars of Mahler’s Second symphony have to appear from either silence or a sense of nothingness. In Utah, we performed Haydn’s Symphony No. 5 as an opener. However, we did not want the formalism which an opening piece brings with it, so we decided to perform it in the dark with only spotlights on the performers, who all entered and left the stage together.
I don’t yet know if or how this will affect the repertoire in the rest of the season. It stays in you; everything has now already been said. It’s impossible to say what comes next.
I had many surprises during this week. including hearing the orchestra play at a level at which I have never heard them play before. I have never once felt apprehensive about the technical challenges the work would present, and have only ever been curious about the changes which were bound to happen in the relationships between people in the orchestra. In order to perform a whole cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, you have to just let it come, and not overdo it. The energy will arrive in the moment, and this thought has always given me confidence.
There have been changes: we are now listening to each other more. We have been pushed out of our comfort zone, and this puts us all in the spirit of it. I see it as an elevation of our possibilities; an edification of ourselves.
Therefore we can say that the notion that “art is shaping us” goes much further with Mahler.
Thierry Fischer, Music Director, Utah Symphony