Orchestra Performs Mahler's Fifth

This Saturday, May 4 at 8:00 p.m., the Amherst College Symphony Orchestra will debut its most difficult performance to date: Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The 70-member ensemble, under the direction of conductor Mark Swanson and concertmaster Ben Boatwright ’14, is prepared to deliver a thrilling 70-minutes’ worth of virtuosity. According to Swanson, Mahler’s Fifth is a symphony celebrated for its “great dramatic impact, emotion, and beauty.” Concertmaster Ben Boatwright offered his own take on the ambitious piece:

“The symphony as a whole is about as large-scale as one can get — five movements lasting more than an hour with a constant intensity, both in the technical aspects of each part and in how they combine with the orchestration, all of which is very dense and multi-layered throughout.”
“The first movement, ‘Trauermarsch,’ literally means ‘funeral march,’ and has a very somber tone in C# minor. But of course, being Mahler, it has some incredibly powerful writing for the low winds and strings. The second movement has a similar tragic feel, but is rather more frenetic; the first two movements together make up what Mahler calls Part 1 of the symphony.”

“The third movement, the scherzo, is Part 2. It is probably the most light-hearted of the movements (if you can ever call Mahler light-hearted), if somewhat off-the-wall. There are some really beautiful spots where the strings have some waltz-like melodies by themselves, which I find particularly enjoyable to play as a violinist.”

“Part 3 consists of the last two movements. The fourth, the Adagietto, is probably Mahler’s most popular work and is often performed on its own. It is really the emotional core of the piece and was supposedly written as a form of marriage proposal to his future wife Alma. It is scored for strings alone (plus harp), and is one of if not the best ‘love songs’ extant in the classical repertoire. The final movement is, in a way, a response to the 4th, and rehashes the theme from the Adagietto a number of times in a faster, more joyful tempo. It is said that by that time Mahler had received a positive response from Alma on his proposal and wrote the final movement accordingly.”

“For me, I think the most enjoyable part of playing it as an individual is knowing that Mahler’s intent was really to integrate the maximum amount of orchestral textures and sounds into a coherent whole. In that way, I know that even the few spots where I have solos (usually lasting only a few several measures) are meant to utilize a specific timbre rather than to be a place to show off virtuosity.

“The preparation has been long and hard as one might expect for a work of this scale. We’ve been working relentlessly on it all semester. Mark [Swanson] is a great director…and I think no matter the outcome…it will be very rewarding to have performed a masterpiece like this, that is so involved in every aspect of making the music work.”

The performance will take place in Buckley Recital Hall. Admission is free for Five-College students.