BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Stefan Sanderling has a special feeling for the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, but not all of them. "The last three symphonies are the reason I love Mahler so much," he said in an interview this month.
Sanderling is conducting Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) in his first and only performances this season with the Florida Orchestra since the surprise announcement last year that he was making an early exit as music director. Though he will return for another set of masterworks concerts next season, his program this weekend has a powerful sense of closure, since it includes not only Mahler's final symphonic work, which was premiered after the composer died at 50 in 1911, but also Haydn's Farewell Symphony.
Das Lied von der Erde, an epic song cycle for mezzo soprano, tenor and orchestra that is a symphony in all but the number it lacks, made a memorable impression on Sanderling as a teenager in Germany. There he heard it performed for the first time by the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under his father, the late, great conductor Kurt Sanderling.
"When this symphony is heard by a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old, it does incredible things," Stefan Sanderling said. "You really start thinking. You are lost in a current and you can't get out of it anymore. I was completely swallowed up by it."
Mahler's symphonies became all the rage when they were championed by Leonard Bernstein in legendary performances. "If you were somebody who loves to milk emotions, then this music cannot be topped," Sanderling said. "Mahler with Leonard Bernstein is overwhelmingly beautiful and deep."
The Mahler symphonies represented a sharp break in the tradition of romantic symphonies by Bruckner and Brahms.
"There was this revolution where it became fashionable to show this kind of emotion," Sanderling said. "Bruckner has very strong emotions. Brahms has very strong emotions. But they are hidden behind a structure. With Mahler — and this is why he appeals so much to the younger generation — the emotion is right there, it is so much in front of you that you can't escape it."
The Florida Orchestra's performances of Mahler's valedictory work feature Canadian mezzo soprano Susan Platts and American tenor William Burden (he replaces Vinson Cole, who canceled because of illness). They sing six songs — three apiece — of Chinese poems translated into German, with the mezzo getting the biggest piece, the 30-minute finale, Der Abschied (Farewell).
"It is his most philosophical symphony," Sanderling said. "It is not just telling a story but is asking the big, important questions: the fear of death, the not believing in an afterlife. Mahler always hoped there was an afterlife, but he couldn't really convince himself. If you don't believe in an afterlife, then death becomes incredibly scary."
Spoken like a true German intellectual, I said to Sanderling.
"Spoken by someone who does not feel religion," he replied. "That's what Mahler felt, too."
The last song depicts the moment of death. "It deals with something that has become unspeakable," he continued. "Which is so intimate and so overwhelming at the same time that only music can touch it. This last song is so overwhelming that you don't dare to understand it. That's why Mahler and Shostakovich (another composer revered by Sanderling) are such close brothers. It's the acknowledgement that at the end of life there is no afterlife. There is only farewell."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.