Composer Gustav Mahler

Teddy Talks Mahler

The Louisville Orchestra
Teddy Abrams, conductor

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

Those of us that have had the pleasure of watching Teddy Abrams conduct the Louisville Orchestra for the past several years know how passionate he is about music, and that passion extends into the educational side of things, hence the creation of the “Teddy Talks…” series. In some ways the talks feel like a class in music theory, but with the care and attention that Mr. Abrams and the orchestra have devoted to programming, these talks actually assist us in understanding and appreciating the chosen subject more.

Saturday’s music of choice was a semi-in depth look into Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor. Semi-in depth? I’ll explain in a bit. In Mr. Abrams’ opinion, this piece is epic in scope, not just in size but in musicianship. It is common knowledge that Mahler was not a well-liked composer/conductor because of his style of composition, direction, and lack of respect for authority. Despite his reputation, Mahler had a very successful career with musical powerhouses like the Vienna Court Opera, New York Philharmonia, and the Metropolitan Opera.

Mahler is one of a few composers who serve as a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries and his musical styles have influences of both. He was influenced by the Austrian folk songs of the time and would often incorporate into his compositions. Symphony No. 5 is no exception. Mahler was also a fan of J. S. Bach and his use of counterpoint. Mr. Abrams shared that Mahler used Bach-like composition in the 5th movement of this symphony. He continued to explain that there are other quirks commonplace in Mahler’s compositional style, such as the layering of textures and hellish landscapes. He is absolutely right.

The talk was like watching a child present their show and tell to the class as Mr. Abrams wanted to share everything that he could as it pertained to this Symphony, hence the semi in-depth. It would not be beyond the scope of believability to imagine our lesson in Mahler could have gone on for a few more hours, but the proof is in the pudding, right? So that is what our orchestra did and it certainly did not disappoint.

Comprised of five movements, Symphony No. 5 is one of the most sublime pieces in Mahler’s catalog. We begin with Trauermarsch, which, as the name indicates, has a march-like feel. It begins with a stunning trumpet call that vacillates between C sharp to E major, setting up similar chordal progressions throughout the whole of the piece and the use of oscillating thirds. It is within this movement that we have a feeling of sadness and grief, which was the intention. Written within the bellow of the second movement, Stürmisch bewegt is a lovely, soft tympani that keeps a steady and low hum while the cellos come in with a cheerier tone closely followed by the violas that add depth and light, pulling the music to a lighter sound.

Considered one of the longest Scherzi in the repertoire, at approximately 16 minutes, this third movement Scherzo is filled with dancing, laughter, and promise. The influences of the Austrian landscape are quite evident throughout this section and there isn’t a single instrument that doesn’t get to shine a bit within. There is so much passion and oomph within this movement that Mr. Abrams had to wipe his brow upon its completion followed by an audible “Yeah” from an audience member too.

It is often noted that the 4th movement, Adagietto, is a love-letter to Alma Maria Schindler, who later became the composer’s wife, and this section certainly is less harried and a bit dreamier. It is within the first notes that some of the most beautiful sounds are drawn forth. There is significant work done among the strings but the elegantly performed harp passage (sorry, the harpist’s name was not in the program), gets a bit more attention. Mr. Abrams said that many conductors use varying tempos as Mahler was not specific with his notations, but I believe what was chosen this night fit the bill quite nicely. Our esteemed conductor even hit his hand on the music stand during a grand gesture and didn’t even lose a millisecond of timing.

The final movement, Rondo-Finale, has all of the fireworks that one could want to wind up this incredible piece of music. Light, airy and dance-like, the energy and verve are strewn throughout and we leave this magnificent musical tapestry on an elevated high note.

Upon the completion of this piece I reflected back to something that Mr. Abrams mentioned earlier in the evening that made the audience giggle, but I believe to be a true statement made in a modern, relatable way: “You don’t need a Pixar short before a performance of Mahler”. While his composition, on paper, looks inconceivably eccentric and difficult, what leaps from the orchestra is a thing of beauty.

Bravi Tutti!!

Teddy Talks Mahler

January 18, 2020

Louisville Orchestra
Kentucky Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202


Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.