That night 23 years ago will always be remembered as a touching moment in The Florida Orchestra’s history. In November 1998, I sat in a crowded Morsani Hall at what is now the Straz Center, waiting in silence as Music Director Jahja Ling took the podium, looked out over the audience and spoke.
He announced a dedication to his late wife, Jane, who had passed away from cancer at age 49, leaving behind two teenage sons. Ling then turned to his musicians and led them in a gripping performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. But what stood out was the ethereal Adagietto, which Ling intended as the centerpiece of his memorial. The impact of that music lingered for years.
The Adagietto is Mahler’s best-known creation, a reverie often played as a stand-alone piece away from its home in the stormy, 70-minute C-minor Symphony. Here, time stands still in an interlude scored only for harp and strings.
This sublime music, along with the entire symphony, is the focus of Inside Mahler’s Symphony No. 5: Open Rehearsal, Thursday (Dec. 2) at 7:30 p.m. at the Straz Center in Tampa. Led by Music Director Michael Francis, the rehearsal gives listeners a unique look into how the orchestra prepares for a formal concert, and the complexities behind such a challenging work. The audience will hear amplified comments by Maestro Francis for the rehearsal of each movement.
The rehearsal will take us on a deep dive into a form Mahler said “must be like a world … it must embrace everything.’’ Armed with this insight, audiences will be prepped for the weekend Masterworks program, which includes the Fifth Symphony along with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, featuring soloist Anne-Marie McDermott.
“This epic, beautiful, romantic, catastrophic symphony is one of the greatest examples of art ever created,” Francis says. “Where we start the symphony in darkness, we end in a blaze of glory, one of the most thrilling experiences in music.”
The Fifth marks a turning point in Mahler’s development – a purely instrumental, abstract symphony without singers or extra-musical program. It also is the composer’s most contrapuntal – many voiced – structure, full of dense, crisscrossing, polyphonic textures not heard in his earlier works.
Cast in five movements within three arcing sections, the symphony opens with a foreboding four-note trumpet call that descends into a funeral march of grand proportion. The second movement grows from this, but imbued with an unresolved upheaval – angry and impassioned, even schizophrenic.
The next section grows into a massive scherzo – 820 bars – full of rustic country waltzes and extended horn solos, and ends with a rousing flourish. Then comes the tranquility of the Adagietto, which Mahler composed as a marriage offering to his young bride, Alma. It also was played at the funeral of Robert Kennedy in 1968, and heard in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice.
“It’s the ultimate example of a proposal of marriage,’’ Francis adds. “When Mahler sent it to Alma, she understood it as a love letter. So there’s this epic story here between a 22-year-old woman and the 41-year-old composer. It was him saying ‘Will you be with me?’”
The music leads without a break into a lone horn summoning the rondo finale, and the mood shifts dramatically: Music in sunlit relief, the orchestra juggling a quadruple fugue worthy of Bach before everyone prances to an exuberant close.