Fort Worth — Programming a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is an act of bravery. This monumental task is being undertaken this weekend by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Michael Harth-Bedoya at Bass Performance Hall. It is not performed all that often, so this is a rare chance to hear it.
It is rare on symphony programs for a number of factors. For one thing, its huge budget-busting instrumentation requires the hiring of an army of extra players, including eight horns and two timpanists. The work also calls for a mezzo-soprano soloist as well as a women’s choir on stage and a boy’s choir set “… in a high gallery.” There is also an offstage posthorn, here probably played by a flugelhorn; and an offstage snare drum. For this performance, the FWSO is joined by the women’s chorus Fort Worth Kantorei and the Texas Boys Choir.
The work’s length is the other problem. It can take up to two bladder-challenging hours to perform. Mahler’s original score suggests a pause between the outsized first movement, which takes one-third of the total time, and the remainder of the work, but since this advice it is not in the published score, the pause is usually not taken (as in this current performance).
The work is cast in five movements, each with a specific program related to our relationship with nature and the lessons we learn from its many aspects, such as the flowers, the beasts, the night, the morning, the seasons, redemption and even “…the god Dionysus, the great Pan.” Even though his original score gives specific names for each movement, Mahler decided that it was better to let the audience come up with their own thoughts rather than let them in on his, so none are in the published score.
The history of Mahler’s composition is one of struggle and constant revision. The movements were rearranged. Mahler borrowed liberally from a number of sources and even from other composers. For example, the symphony begins with a familiar quote from Brahms’ first symphony. He was striving to write something that had never been heard before and it is possible to assume that he thought of the orchestra as a single instrument akin to the universe itself. Make no small goals, I suppose.
The Fort Worth Symphony did an admirable job of scaling such Olympian heights. With this work, it’s typical for the players, especially the brass section, to tire in the last 30 minutes. This brought to mind Mahler’s original suggestion of a pause after the first movement. Since he was also a conductor, maybe his concern was less for the audience than for the endurance of the players.
All of the solo players acquitted themselves beautifully. The exquisite interplay between the oboe and flute was excellently played. Special notice must be given to the top-notch playing from the tenor trombone player, rarely used for such extensive solo playing. The pair of matching timpanists made for quite a show in the back of the orchestra with flying in-sync mallets that reminded of a precision drill team.
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor was amazing in her way-too-short appearance. She possesses a glorious voice that is a real mezzo, which is rare these days. Even though Mahler wanted a contralto, no one would quibble about this substitution. Her diction was superb, as was her interpretation of the words about “deep woe” from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, which was more resigned than somber.
The only disappointment was Harth-Bedoya’s tendency to overplay all of the big moments that abound in this symphony. The ear tires of frequently played tutta forza, cymbal-splashed arrivals, especially in such a long piece with a multitude of contenders for the one “truly big moment.” Harth-Bedoya even missed the more typical candidate — the last dozen spectacular timpani-driven measures. He arrived at that target level way too soon and overplayed the set-up of a sudden drop to very soft, right before Mahler’s last effect. He only allowed a single measure to make that final crescendo to musical nirvana.
Once last grumble. Since this symphony has accompanying text, supplied in the program, why is it in such tiny type that it is impossible to clearly read, even in bright light? In the dark hall, it was impossible. The texts are critical to understanding this work, or Mahler wouldn’t have turned to vocalists to convey his message. Why not print a larger word sheet or, even better, use supertitles since that equipment is already available in the hall, used by the opera?