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The LA Philharmonic reunites with Mehta, performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 3

By Charlize Althea Garcia, March 14, 2023

The Los Angeles Philharmonic performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with Conductor Emeritus Zubin Mehta. Mehta, an 86-year-old world renowned conductor, was appointed musical directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962.

Following the grim but also enlightening second symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 almost mirrors the same premise, asking life’s questions, not of death, but of nature as Mahler dedicates each movement to sounds of nature. The composition lasts around 100 minutes, consisting of six movements. Mahler also included a solo voice for two movements and only one movement for two choirs which would last for only five minutes. It’s a wonder how immense the composer’s ambition was considering the length and orchestration of this piece.

The composition opened with a French horn line bellow that instantly transmits an exhilaration to the senses. Soon joined with the rest of the brass, the tone develops into an omen. The thumping of a bass drum interrupts and its staggered rhythm and muted sound in a silent room had the listener tense with anticipation and suspense. But the lower strings cut the silence soon with their succinct scale-like passages that would invite surges of theatrics.

A trumpet fanfare wavers throughout the movement contributing to the distress, acting as the perennial warning for the listener. The first five minutes act as if it precedes a tragedy but is soon contrasted with the next five minutes which transports the listener into a childlike wonderment. The two contrasting themes, doom and wonderment, interweave with each other that make the first movement. Part I ends with only pageantry and fanfare, leading into Part II with a heightened heart rate and anticipation.

Mehta conducted with ease and what looked like leisure. He had completely memorized the almost two-hour composition, conducting without any sheet music.

The fourth movement introduces the solo voice in the piece. It is said that Mahler had been influenced by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s ideology had found its way to this symphony as Mahler had dedicated this piece to represent nature: nature itself, love, nature of God and nature of man. The solo voice, performed by alto Gerhild Romberger, recited a poem from Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” that pulled the light away from the piece to only fill with darkness with the low and dimming voice.

This was contrasted with a church hymn sung by Romberger and the Women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The brightness of both choirs had shifted the tone to merriment. These two movements had stood out in their significance. Nietszche was known for his extreme opposition to the Christian religion and the poem recited in the fourth movement followed the same ideology in the following chapters. Mahler found connection in both passages to have displayed it in the same composition.

The piece ends with a triumphant finish, starting with a softness from the winds and fragility within the upper strings. Without haste, the orchestra swells into fanfare as if the hunger to end with gratification was sated.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 inhabited worlds that strayed far from each other. Ideas, both musically and in meaning, had contrasted each other throughout the piece. From tones of foreboding tragedy to a dreamlike haze, this composition made me forget about its almost two-hour length. Just as with any classical piece, there is a story within each one, subjective to the listener. This symphony especially let us enter a state of inventiveness.

Listening to Mahler, it’s hard to wrap your head around the many worlds he’s influenced. The contrasting ideas so heavily within the piece also invites many ideas within the individual. A beautiful storyteller, inviting the listener to not only abide by the setting he’s provided but to attach meaning through an individual’s own imagery.

Mehta’s presence lit the crowd afire. His constant presence in the classical music world, six decades with the LA Philharmonic reminds us, just as Mahler did, to never stop lighting the ideas within each other.

Feature image courtesy of Craig Mathew

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