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The Bernstein Mahler connection

The Mahler Box


Lumber support: Longtime Colorado Springs Philharmonic patron Allan Bach custom-built the local orchestra's latest instrument.
  • Lumber support: Longtime Colorado Springs Philharmonic patron Allan Bach custom-built the local orchestra's latest instrument.

While the Leonard Bernstein centennial tribute won't take place until the Philharmonic's 2017-18 season, it does include one significant musical tie-in with this season's repertoire: Gustav Mahler. The late 19th century Austrian composer's repertoire — which was championed by Bernstein here in the States — will be included not only in two of the five centennial concerts, but also in this spring's performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

Neither Bernstein nor Mahler were strangers to antisemitism. Max Burckhard, the artistic director of Vienna's Burgtheater, once referred to Mahler as "that rachitic degenerate Jew." That condemnation would be resurrected two decades after Mahler's death, when the Nazi government declared his work "degenerate music" and banned it from being performed in public.

The connection between the two composers runs so deep, in fact, that Bernstein today lies in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery with a copy of Mahler's Fifth across his heart.

"Bernstein famously conducted and recorded Mahler symphonies in an age when very few conductors would have done that," explains Philharmonic President and CEO Nathan Newbrough. "Imagine hearing Bernstein conducting Mahler with the Vienna Philharmonic; this would have been unthinkable just a few decades before it happened. The barriers that Leonard Bernstein broke through in his lifetime, they were incredible."

Mahler's notoriously difficult Sixth Symphony is also among the most ambitious compositions the Colorado Springs Philharmonic has taken on to date.

"One of the things that distinguishes the Philharmonic here in Colorado Springs is that we're a mid-size community with an orchestra that's performing well above its pay grade," says Newbrough. "This is an orchestra that tackles repertoire most communities would not touch. And Mahler's Sixth Symphony is one of those pieces."

The April 22-23 performances, conducted by Philharmonic Music Director Josep Caballé Domenech, will also offer a rare opportunity to hear an exceptionally unique instrument called the Mahler Box.

According to historical legend, Mahler was fed up with the fact that, during rehearsals for his symphony's premiere, the orchestra was unable to produce the sound he was hearing in his head, specifically that of an ax hitting a tree. To solve the problem, the composer had a one-meter wooden cube made to be struck exactly twice during the performance.

Like Mahler, Caballé Domenech and his company were determined not to cut corners, so they made one of their own.

"This is the only time in all of music repertoire that you'll ever see it," says Newbrough. "We also have a huge hammer the size of a tree trunk — in fact, it's made from a tree trunk. It's all hardwood. And there are two moments during the performance where a percussionist will stand up on a chair in the rear of the orchestra, and his or her job is to just smack the top of the box as hard as they can.

"So we have this enormous box that's played twice during the performance, and it's just as loud as you can imagine in the Pikes Peak Center. It's deafening if you stand next to it. It's worth the prices of admission just to see the Mahler Box in action."

After the symphony performances, Newbrough expects the box will be retired to the Pikes Peak Center's basement, "only to be seen when we repeat Mahler's Sixth," which, he acknowledges, may not be in any of our lifetimes.

— Bill Forman

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