Borrowing a theatrical touch from the Olympics, members of the Academy Festival Orchestra waved the American flag during the opening number of their final concert of the season on Saturday. The gesture, which would have been pure schmaltz if the music had been more familiar, made a witty counterpoint to the wild and dissonant transcendentalism of Charles Ives’s first orchestral suite, Three Places in New England. Given the intensity of the music, the flag was both funny and welcoming — a way for an orchestra playing some pretty out-there music to say “We come in peace.”
In his opening remarks, conductor James Gaffigan described the Ives as at times resembling the results of an acid trip, and the second movement, “Putnam’s Camp,” which imagines the head-on collision of two marching bands, lived up to this extravagant metaphor. Gaffigan also reminded the audience that Gustav Mahler, just before he died and in his role as music director of the New York Philharmonic, had been planning to conduct the music of Ives — an unlikely yet telling connection to the evening’s second half, which was taken up with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan.”
There are several reasons why Mahler has become the most popular choice for these season finales. The range of musical styles that Mahler employs; the sophistication with which he blends instruments, sections, and effects; the sheer grandeur and emotional impact of his themes; and his astonishing ability to create and destroy multiple musical worlds in the course of a single symphony all combine to make his oeuvre the perfect vehicle for a festival orchestra’s culminating effort.
In Mahler’s First Symphony, drones and simple repeated phrases coexist and interact with elaborate thematic developments, giving the entire monumental work an air of spontaneity that can turn at a moment’s notice into a paroxysm of perceived inevitability. It’s a work that perfectly expresses its composer’s lifelong belief that the simple joy of making music lies uncomfortably close to feelings of limitless solitude and unutterable despair. The emotional tug-of-war starts early, with the opening movement’s evocation of a “spring without end.” Supposedly eternal idylls have a way of ending badly, or at least of not going quite as planned. The second movement brings in the full extent of the piece’s orchestration for brass, which involves 16 instruments, including eight horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba.
In the third movement — a funeral march — things start to get really weird. First there is the instantly recognizable melody of “Frère Jacques,” but transposed to a minor key, and then there’s an incredible outbreak, coming toward the end, of swinging, gypsy-like, klezmer music. The orchestra’s four clarinets played the latter section outstandingly. And finally, there’s the great elaboration and recapitulation of the fourth movement, which is twice as long as any of the others and full of majestic crescendos. How appropriate then that this piece should signal a majestic crescendo of another sort — the end of another great and successful season at the Music Academy.