On Friday, April 6, the Yale Philharmonia will perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Woolsey Hall. We spoke with Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian about the piece and the context in which it was composed.
Q: What is worth thinking about as an audience member listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony?
A: One thing that is pretty clear is that it has so much finality in it. Maybe we can even think of it as the final statement in what we might call the traditional language of classical music. This idea that it’s almost a prophecy of what’s to come is I think essential to understanding and listening to the Ninth Symphony of Mahler. He’s (also) taking you on a journey of contradiction, which is so important to Mahler’s whole world, because he had so many areas in which he was conflicted. Is he a conductor? Is he a composer? Is he cosmopolitan? Is he provincial? All these things tore him apart his whole life. His religion and hiding the fact that he was Jewish — so many things created this feeling of enormous conflict inside him. And so I think that in some ways the Ninth Symphony doesn’t need so much explaining, because it’s so accessible at the beginning and you realize that you are in between a kind of sense of fear and terror and great tenderness, and that it is a struggle to understand the meaning of life and the meaning of love, particularly.
Q: What is the story of this piece?
A: There’s a lot of death that is referred to in this music, and there’s very good reason for that. In his own personal situation, the fact that he’d just lost his daughter. The fact that he had this heart arrhythmia — there’s kind of a description of that uneven heartbeat at the opening. So there’s all of that, but there is also this death that a lot of people talk about, which is that tonality was ending and Mahler knew it.
Q: To what degree do you work with the members of the Philharmonia to get on the same page about the history and background of the work?
A: I approach this a little bit like a director approaches a play. I think that they should come with some understanding of their role and certainly with the ability to play it. Part of what I enjoy (about) working with these wonderfully talented students is to engage them in discussion (about) the concepts and the philosophies behind it and the history and particularly that moment in Mahler’s life and how special it was.
Q: What are the challenges that an ensemble faces with this piece?
A: What we have to do is apply an incredible discipline to be able to play together while also allowing ourselves to have extremely spontaneous energy. That’s one of the things I value most about being on stage, that this is the moment and we’re going to lay it all out there. It doesn’t mean we lose discipline, but we take an enormous amount of risk. And that can be risk of great virtuosity and the risk of making yourself extremely open and vulnerable to very profound and tragic kind of feelings, which will only be projected into the concert hall and shared with our public if we all are in touch with those feelings.