It has been said that every symphony by Gustav Mahler is a universe. The Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern will explore Mahler’s universe of light and shadow, his Symphony No. 7, Jan. 26-28 at Helzberg Hall.
Mahler began composing the Symphony No. 7 in 1904 when he was riding high in his private life and professional career. At the time, Mahler was serving as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera and was also gaining recognition internationally as a conductor and a composer. His second daughter was born in June 1904, and that summer he took a break from his hectic life in Vienna to escape to his lakeside retreat in the Carinthian mountains. It was in his isolated composing hut there that he wrote the second and fourth movements of the seventh symphony.
Mahler’s contented life was not to last, however. Over the next three years, as he completed and revised the symphony, Mahler’s life took a dark turn. For a variety of reasons, some related to his demanding personality, the Viennese music community became hostile to Mahler, and he had to resign his position with the Court Opera. Mahler’s first daughter died of scarlet fever in 1907, and that year he also learned he was afflicted with an incurable heart ailment.
By the time the Symphony No. 7 was first performed in 1908, Mahler’s revisions had significantly toned down the original optimism of the work.
The Seventh is sometimes known as “Song of the Night,” a title not given or approved by the composer but not altogether inappropriate. The long first movement is moody and tense, and Mahler did call the second and fourth movements “Nachtmusik.” Mahler said he was hoping to convey an atmosphere of wandering by night similar to that in Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”
One of the delights of the symphony is the fourth movement, Nachtmusik II, featuring the mandolin, which will be played by Beau Bledsoe. The movement evokes a scene of nocturnal serenaders that is charming and a little bit creepy.
After the preceding shadows and darkness, the finale is a joyful eruption of daylight. Basically a rondo with eight variations, the final movement has a herky-jerky quality, with many surprising false starts and parodies of Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.” The long, strange ride comes to an end with jubilant, clanging bells.
With the Mahler Seventh, the Kansas City Symphony is nearing the end of its traversal of Mahler’s nine symphonies. After Mahler’s Third next season, the only symphony remaining is No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand.” Stern tells me that symphony might not be performed because the Helzberg Hall stage is not large enough to contain the vast forces required. He’s hopeful, however, that some sort of accommodation can be arranged.
In the meantime, let’s savor every glorious Mahlerian moment Stern and the Kansas City Symphony have to offer.
8 p.m. Jan. 26 and 27 and 2 p.m. Jan. 28. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$85. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.
The Friends of Chamber Music will present Welsh pianist Llyr Williams in an all-Schubert program Jan. 26 at the Folly Theater. Williams, 41, may not be that well-known, but he’s one of the finest pianists of his generation. He graduated from Queen’s College, Oxford, where he earned a First Class degree and the Gibbs Prize in Music for outstanding performance. He was also a postgraduate scholar at the Royal Academy of Music. He has subsequently won a slew of awards and has recorded several albums for the Signum label.
Williams will perform some of Schubert’s most exquisite and popular works, including the Four Impromptus, D. 935 and Six Moments Musicaux, D. 780. Also on the program are Franz Liszt’s transcription of three Schubert songs: “To Sing on the Water,” “The Miller and the Brook” and “The Trout.”
7:30 p.m. Jan. 26. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. $25-$35. 816-561-9999 or chambermusic.org.
Jackson Berkey is probably best known as co-founder with Chip Davis of the immensely popular pop-baroque group Mannheim Steamroller. But Berkey has his own career as a distinguished pianist. Berkey will give a recital of his compositions Jan. 23 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
7 p.m. Jan. 23. O’Malley-McAllister Auditorium, Benedictine College, 1020 N. Second St., Atchison, Kan. The concert is free and open to the public. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/ybq84hra.
You can reach Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at facebook.com/kcartsbeat.