The Seattle Symphony is going to let loose on Mahler’s mighty Sixth Symphony tonight and Saturday. (Go to Benaroya on Thursday, see the hammer-laden “Thor” sequel at the cineplex on Friday? Just a thought.) The Sixth, first performed in 1906 in a concert conducted by Gustav Mahler himself, isn’t on the Top 40 playlist of symphonies; this 80-minute work requires a large orchestra (all hands on deck — and that includes snare drum, triangles, cymbals, bells, and a very big hammer), a vigorous, rich brass section and, depending on what order the orchestra prefers, the big emotional swing between the third and fourth movements. Conductor Ronald Zollman, director of orchestral studies at the Carnegie Mellon School of Music, gave a charming interview last year about his relationship with Mahler and the Sixth; he said,
I was first offered the chance to perform a Mahler symphony in 1983. The invitation came from Australia. Naturally, I told them I wanted to do the 1st symphony, the Titan. But the other side said: “please no, we’ve heard that one many times here, what about the Sixth?”. I sighed – starting directly with Mahler’s Sixth, that’s a tough nut to crack! I tried to find various ways to get out of it and persuade them to pick a different one.
It also requires some intent listening; I listened to it twice, and attended a lecture about it, but still did not feel that I “got” it, until I saw the Mariinsky Orchestra perform it live. It’s a piece full of layers and meaning, but the attentive listening required to gather the string is worth it. Seeing it live, performed with a flourish, is really something, as well; the Seattle Symphony looks ready: