Mahler's Sixth Symphony

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A great misconception about classical music is that the "great works" remain an unchanging, immutable revelation encoded into the score. When performed, those notes, lines, dots, and permissibly vague directions like "allegro" or "maestoso" should induce mysterious polarities whose exactly calibrated voltages generate a charge that shocks the soul into transcendence.

Well, not quite. Great music of any genre should reliably spur some sort of transcendence—that's one mark of greatness—but even a work with printed notes and specific directions requires performers to make decisions.

In the sixth symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), the usual choices abound. Every conductor has a different take on how fast "Allegro energico, ma non troppo" should actually go, yet Mahler's symphony poses other problems.

Unlike most other notable composers of his era (Brahms, Debussy, Schoenberg), Mahler made his living as a conductor. Practical experience enabled him to squeeze a bit more volume and transparency from the orchestra, so balancing the brass, wind, and string sections proves especially troublesome: In the first movement, a disfigured military march thrumming with menace, Mahler often embeds blaring horns within massed strings. An adept Mahler conductor like the Seattle Symphony's Gerard Schwarz knows when those brass passages should extend the melodic line or just lurk, malignantly gnawing inside those blooming violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

The symphony's finale also features a series of violent hammer blows. Superstitiously, Mahler crossed out the third hammer blow in the score; he feared it might lead to his death. Some conductors heed Mahler's wish while others include it. Even if you know the conductor's preference—Schwarz prefers all three—the hammer blows still startle.

Unusually for a symphony, Mahler's sixth compels the conductor to cope with another, more global, choice. What to play as the second movement?

As published, the second movement, a scherzo, is a gross parody of the opening martial "Allegro energico." Yet in rehearsal and subsequent performances, Mahler decided that the "Scherzo" and "Andante moderato" should trade places, placing the "Scherzo" as the third movement.

Mahler's change of heart permits the conductor to act as a kind of DJ; live and on recordings, most famed Mahler conductors play the "Scherzo" second (Zander, Levine, Bernstein, Haitink, Karajan, Boulez) while others place it third (Barbirolli, Mitropoulos, Mackerras, and in the early 1970s, Abaddo).

Schwarz and company plan to place the Scherzo third, which will please some Mahler fanatics and annoy other diehards. I love Mahler, but I think the order can work either way, depending on how the conductor casts the "Scherzo" in the symphony's dramatic arc. Is it a ghostly, soul-crushing elaboration that should recur much later in the work or a cruelly mocking echo that must follow the first movement? You can hear Schwarz and the band make the case for Mahler's symphony, a ferocious yet malleable monument, this weekend. recommended

The Seattle Symphony perform Thurs June 26 at 7:30 pm, Fri–Sat June 27–28 at 8 pm, and Sun June 29 at 2 pm, Benaroya Hall, $17–$95.

Thurs 6/26

OLYMPIA EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC FESTIVAL The 14th incarnation of this long-running DIY festival continues to champion performance art, avant rock, sound poetry, noise, experimental film, and other unclassifiable aural acts. During the four-day shindig, Seattle musicians Bill Horist, Amy Denio, Red Squirrels, and Aphonia Recordings honcho Ben L. Robertson share the bill with Arachnid Arcade, Crank Sturgeon, and other groups from around the country. Sunday showcases a duo collaboration with producer/sound collagist Steve Fisk and Peter Randlette, electronic music guru at Evergreen State College. Through Sun June 29. Various venues, check www.myspace.com/olystrange music for details, $7–$8, $20 for a full festival pass.

Fri 6/27

LAKE UNION CIVIC ORCHESTRA Led by Christophe Chagnard, LUCO traverses Gustav Holst's masterwork, The Planets. Although Holst hoped to portray the astrological traits of our solar system's planetary bodies—Holst was an amateur astrologer—most listeners hear The Planets as a tone poem describing the Greek gods. Completed a few weeks before the outbreak of World War I, the ominous first movement, "Mars the Bringer of War," simmers with impending doom. I love the ebullient pageantry of "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" and the majestic "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," both propelled by sumptuously scored horns, trumpets, and trombones. In addition, cellist Julian Schwarz follows in his father's footsteps and conducts The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas (remember the parade of brooms in Fantasia?). Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave, 652-4255, 7:30 pm, $10/$15.

Sat 6/28

THE ESOTERICS In a year stocked with centennial celebrations for composers Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter, this a cappella ensemble commemorates the little-known Hugo Distler (1908–1942). Branded as "degenerate" by the Nazis, Distler's masterly choral works bloom with exotic, Debussy-like harmonies. Also Sun June 29 at Queen Anne Christian Church at 3 pm. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, 4139 42nd Ave SW, 935-7779, 8 pm, $15–$20.

EYES AND EARS PACIFIC VORTEX As part of the Georgetown Artopia Festival, filmmaker and avant violinist Eric Ostrowski presents a 90-minute set of experimental films. Walrus Machine, Ground Tissues (with Joy Von Spain), Paintings for Animals, and Ostrowski's duo Chaostic Magic accompany films by Devon Damonte, Jon Behrens, and others. Also Sun June 29 as part of the Olympia Experimental Music Festival (see Thurs). Bring earplugs. The Bottling Plant Film Theatre, 5700 Airport Way S, sets at 4 and 8:30 pm, free.

WAYNE HORVITZ GRAVITAS QUARTET This unusually configured quartet (trumpet, piano, cello, and bassoon) embodies Horvitz's continuing quest for textures that are new yet cryptically familiar. Horvitz and his Gravitas cohorts play with such grace that discerning between composed and improvised elements is almost impossible. Fourth-floor Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, 7:30 pm, $5–15 sliding-scale donation.

Tues 7/1

EARLY MUSIC ENSEMBLE OF KIILI An octet of young musicians from Estonia perform music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. With guest soprano Eve Kopli. Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave, 325-7065, 8 pm, $5/$10/$20.

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