Mahler Time 

IF YOU DON'T know much about Mahler, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert this week is a good place to start.

In a set-up that spokesman Hal Levin says is a first for the company, conductor George Hanson will devote the first half of the concert to a lecture and demonstration of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, the only work on the program. The musicians will be in their seats, instruments at the ready, and render musical illustrations as Hanson makes his points. After the teach-in, audience and musicians alike will retire to intermission. Then all will return as Hanson conducts a full and uninterrupted performance of the Fifth.

The complexity of Gustav Mahler's music makes it a good choice for an education project. Full of abrupt changes and contrasts, such as quotations from popular music juxtaposed with lofty mysticism, for years Mahler's works were held in contempt by all but a small handful of fanatics. Only after World War II, and the championship of such well-known conductors as Leonard Bernstein, did Mahler's music begin to attract crowds. Some critics attribute the change to a late 20th-century audience's affinity for a music that seems tailor-made for an age of anxiety.

In his own time, though he had some following for his music, Mahler was hailed primarily as a conductor of genius. Born in 1860 in Austrian Bohemia to a Jewish family, Mahler's education benefited from the loosening of restrictions on Jews. He studied in Prague and at the Vienna conservatory, and made his debut as a conductor in 1880 at the early age of 20. He led opera companies in Hamburg and Budapest, winning fame not only for his musical sensitivity to the operas of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, but for his innovations in staging and lighting and his insistence that his singers learn to act.

To get the biggest prize, the post of chief conductor of the Court Opera in anti-Semitic Vienna, Mahler felt obliged to convert to Roman Catholicism. He held the position for 10 years, winning acclaim in all musical quarters. At the end of his career, he even worked in New York, conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and helping to reconstitute the New York Philharmonic. He died in 1911 in Vienna.

During the busy years of conducting, Mahler spent the summer off-seasons in southern Austria, composing his own works. He turned out 10 symphonies, completed an opera, and wrote numerous songs, song-cycles and several pieces of chamber music.

Symphony No. 5 in C# minor, written in 1901-1902, was first performed in Cologne in 1904. Following a series of lush symphonies for voice and orchestra, No. 5 marks a return to purely instrumental work. Its five movements follow a typical Mahler strategy, moving from dark to light tones. It begins with a funeral march and ends in exuberant triumph. Its poignant Adagietto for harp and strings served as a score for Lucchino Visconti's poetic movie Death in Venice.

The Tucson Symphony Orchestra, conducted by George Hanson, performs Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, December 9 and 10, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $10, $16, $23 and $30, plus a TCC service charge of 75 cents or $1. They're available in advance at Robinson's-May and The Wherehouse, or through Ticketmaster (321-1000 or www.ticketmaster.com) and the symphony at 882-8585. Rush tickets for students with ID are available for $7 a half-hour before the show. For information, call 882-8585.


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