Last Saturday night, Gustav Mahler fans filled the seats of the Granada Theater to witness the Music Academy of the West’s rendition of Mahler’s Romantic Fifth Symphony. The performance was the first of five performances the Academy is holding at the Granada this summer. The diverse nationalities of both the composer and performers made this event truly notable, with the musicians’ backgrounds ranging from Seoul to Santa Monica.
The first piece performed was titled Kalevi Aho’s Gejia (Chinese Images for Orchestra). Though originally written by a Finnish composer, the piece incorporated Chinese tones throughout, while also deriving clear influence from Russian composer Shostakovich. The selection was a unique take on traditional Chinese sounds blended with the atonality of 20th-century Shostakovich, which created a surreal, almost supernatural sound. Mahler himself was a large influence on Shostakovich’s work who, in turn, was an influence upon Aho. Aho originates from the same country as Saturday’s composer, Osmo Vänskä.
The short, 15-minute Gejia was followed by Mahler’s overwhelming and transformative symphony. Mahler’s works are known for the large scale of the orchestra, as well as their lengthy duration. The 70-minute symphony consists of five movements. The first movement begins with a solo trumpet while the rest of the orchestra slowly builds its sound throughout the second and third movements.
The initial instrumentation builds up to a fervency, and Vänskä began to conduct so wildly he could have easily been confused for a cheerleader waving pom-poms, trying with all their might to pump up a crowd. By the end of the third movement, I was so encapsulated by the sound that I did not realize how far I had leaned forward in my seat, unwilling to miss even a single note. When the third movement hit its zenith, the entire theater held its breath.
The soft, slowing, sensuous sound of the fourth movement serves as a dramatic contrast from the booming zeal of the third movement. The calm, sweet, romantic music was accentuated by the violins’ soft timbre and accompanied by the light pluckings of the harp. The fifth movement returns to the more upbeat tones of the first three, painting a bucolic scene for the audience.
Throughout it all, conductor Osmo Vänskä was practically jumping from his stand, waving his arms furiously from side to side in a manner I have never seen before from a conductor. At the roaring finale, Vänskä was moving with such a passion, it looked as if he were dancing rather than conducting. All eyes were drawn to him as he tried to draw out more sound from his orchestra. Perhaps his antics were less about directing the symphony and more directing the audience how to feel and react to this transformative piece.