UGASO takes on Mahler’s “personal, prophetic” Symphony No. 6

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The UGA Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Cedel, rehearses at the Performing Arts Center on Feb. 24.

The UGA Symphony Orchestra (UGASO) returns to the works of Gustav Mahler with a performance of his Symphony No. 6 in Hodgson Concert Hall on Thursday, March 3, at 8 p.m.

The symphony, comprising four movements and performed here with no intermission, clocks in at approximately 83 minutes. For this reason, concert-goers are being advised to arrive early, as late seating won’t happen until the end of the first movement, which is roughly 25 minutes long.

It’s a demanding piece of music, and it will ask the UGASO for all it can give.

“This is a huge, huge work,” said Mark Cedel, UGASO director. “This symphony has us using instruments and performing in ways that almost no other symphony does.”

Indeed, the large-orchestra work calls for rare, and sometimes unique, instrumentation, particularly in the percussion area. Racks of untuned cowbells are used to evoke the image of grazing cattle in the Alps, and what the score simply refers to as a “hammer” is, in reality, a six-foot long sledgehammer meant to strike a large wooden box.

“It’s meant to sound as if it’s striking from within the bowels of the earth,” said Cedel. 

The original score called for this hammer to strike three times. Mahler became superstitious about these hammer strikes because of three personal tragedies that happened to him after he finished Symphony No. 6—leaving the Vienna Opera, the death of a daughter and the discovery of a heart condition.

“Mahler eventually began omitting the third strike so as not to tempt fate, but today’s conductors make the choice for themselves,” said Cedel.

For those reasons, among others, the epithet “Tragic” has hung around the symphony. Many dispute its place alongside the symphony, but the attachment exists, despite the irony of his charmed life during the writing of the symphony. 

Mahler’s unusual relationship with Symphony No. 6 is perhaps best summed up by an entry in his wife Alma’s journal:

“The Sixth is the most completely personal of his works, and a prophetic one also,” she wrote. “On him too fell three blows of fate, and the last felled him. But at the time he was serene; he was conscious of the greatness of his work. He was a tree in full leaf and flower.”

Tickets are $10 each or $5 with a UGA student ID and are available at pac.uga.edu, 706-542-4400 or by visiting the Performing Arts Center box office.

The UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music sponsors more than 350 performances each year. To view the performance calendar, subscribe to the weekly email concert listing or learn more about the School of Music, go to music.uga.edu.