Arts & Culture

Kansas City Symphony to present ‘technicolor explosion’ of Mahler’s Third Symphony

The cover art of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was by Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are.”
The cover art of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was by Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

For Christmas many years ago, my Mom gave me an album of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.

The cover art was by Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame, and it perfectly captured the work and the composer. It shows Mahler in his famous composing hut receiving a bouquet of flowers from an angel while outside the hut, a band of animals is playing instruments.

The Kansas City Symphony will perform Mahler’s monumental and magical Symphony No. 3 May 17-19 at Helzberg Hall. Michael Stern will conduct the performance, which will include mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus directed by Charles Bruffy and the Allegro Choirs of Kansas City directed by Christy Elsner.

The Mahler Third Symphony will complete the Kansas City Symphony’s traversal of all of Mahler’s symphonies, except for the Symphony No. 8, known as the Symphony of a Thousand. Stern said that Helzberg Hall is not large enough to accommodate the forces needed to perform Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

Kelley-OConnor4-Credit-Kristina-Choe-Jacinth.jpg
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor will be part of Kansas City Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Kristina Choe Jacinth

“It’s everything and the kitchen sink,” Stern said. “But in a way, Mahler’s Third is more enormous, musically speaking. It’s his longest symphony. It’s even longer than the eighth. ... All Mahler symphonies are special events, but this really is something.”

Really something, indeed. The Mahler Third is nothing less but an upward ascent through the Great Chain of Being, which begins with Pan awakening and ends with Divine Love. In a survey of conductors taken by BBC Music Magazine, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was voted one of the 10 greatest symphonies ever written.

“The piece is all about nature and man’s place in the natural world,” Stern said. “He goes back and forth between the actual description of nature, with movement titles like ‘What the animals in the forest tell me,’ ‘What the night tells me,’ ‘What the morning tell me’ and ‘What the flowers tell me.’ He wrote the six movements for a reason. The last movement on its own is one of the greatest pieces ever written. It’s the most unbelievable adagio that you can imagine. It’s 25 minutes. It’s huge, and that’s just one of six movements.”

The Mahler Third may not require as many forces as the Mahler Eighth, but the Helzberg Hall stage is still going to be packed with instrumentalists and the loft will be filled with the Kansas City Symphony Chorus and the children of the Allegro Choirs.

“Mahler goes from animals, the third movement, the scherzo movement, to night, a mysterious, slow movement,” Stern said. “And after that beautiful song, he brings the kids in for the shortest movement, which sort of lightens the experience and perfectly sets up the last movement, which is ‘What God Tells Me,’ but the original title for the movement is ‘What Love Tells Me.’ So you have God and love intermixed. That, in and of itself, is a beautiful idea.”

Mahler had a deep and abiding love for nature. He wrote his Third Symphony in a small hut he maintained in the mountains, where he would seclude himself for restoration and inspiration.

“I think it was the conductor Bruno Walter who visited Mahler and was admiring the view from his composing hut, and Mahler said ‘Don’t bother looking. I’ve already written all of it in my symphony,’ referring to his Third Symphony,” Stern said.

The work not only requires huge forces but is one of the longest symphonies in the repertoire. At an hour and a half, it will be the only work on the program. Will today’s audiences be able to appreciate such a lengthy work?

“This symphony sort of pulls you in, if you give yourself up to the journey,” Stern said. “There’s so much to listen to and so much to watch in the performance. There are moments of real intimacy and at the same there are unbelievable moments of power and grandeur. It’s like a technicolor explosion. I think the piece speaks for itself, even in this distracted age.”

8 p.m. May 17 and 18 and 2 p.m. May 19. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Theatre for the Performing Arts. $25-$90. kcsymphony.org.

Songflower Chorale

In 2014, Geoff Wilcken, the long-time accompanist and resident composer for the now-defunct Fine Arts Chorale, decided to start the Songflower Chorale to carry on the tradition of the Fine Arts Chorale, which gave its first concert in 1972.

The Songflower Chorale will present “Madrigals Meet Jazz” May 12 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. The concert is a mash-up of English madrigals from the Renaissance and the swinging sounds of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus.

The Songflower Chorale will be joined by saxophonist Doug Talley, bassist Gerald Spaits and drummer Brian Steever.

3 p.m. May 12. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 1307 Holmes St. Free. For more information about the Songflower Chorale, visit www.songflower.org.

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