Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIII, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Walla Walla Symphony to play Mahler’s challenging piece

Cordiner Hall’s stage is the largest at Whitman, and one of the largest in Walla Walla. It is the regular venue for the Walla Walla Symphony (WWS), as well as a number of other orchestras in the area.

However, it won’t be quite big enough to host the Walla Walla Symphony’s upcoming performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony on May 13 at 7:30 p.m.

The Symphony calls for an abnormally large orchestra, including 10 French horns, 10 trumpets, four trombones, four flutes, four oboes and many other players. It also calls for a large chorus.

Dr. Edward Dixon, the Symphony’s principal cellist, said, “It’s the biggest and most difficult concert work that we’ve done since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here since 1990.”

Because of the sheer number of people that need to fit onstage for the performance, the concert will be held at the Walla Walla University church, which boasts a larger performance space than Cordiner.

“It’s a big sanctuary, and it has a big altar area where we can fit all of the musicians,” said Dixon.

Walla Walla Symphony principal trumpet and Whitman trumpet professor William Berry said, “It’s probably the biggest thing any symphony can do, both in terms of orchestral forces and length: I mean, the fifth movement is as long as most Beethoven symphonies by itself.”

While Mahler’s score calls for an unusually large orchestra, the Walla Walla Symphony is more regularly sized and has significantly fewer musicians than the piece requires.

Because of this, the Walla Walla Symphony has decided to play a reduced version of the piece, which compresses many of the parts for winds and brass so that fewer musicians are needed.

Although this could potentially be limiting artistically, Dixon remains optimistic. “I think the full version is overwhelmingly large; they had a tendency to do things in a gargantuan manner back then, even more than is probably practical. This will probably be more effective.”

Berry was also optimistic, but added, “Because of the reduced orchestration, everyone has to work harder.”

In order to fill the extra parts, the Walla Walla Symphony will have to hire a number of freelance musicians, many of whom will come from Portland.

The Symphony already imports musicians from all over Washington and Oregon to fill their regular roster, and they frequently bring even more players in from afar when attempting a large piece like this one. This is due partly to a shortage of accomplished local musicians.

The symphony also regularly hires a number of student musicians from both Whitman and Walla Walla University. The piece will be especially challenging for them; Mahler symphonies are considered a challenge even for professional musicians.

Geneva Faulkner, a Whitman first-year who plays with the Walla Walla Symphony, is excited for the performance. “The opportunity to play a Mahler symphony with a chorus is a rare experience,” she said in an e-mail.

However, despite her excitement and her past experience playing Mahler, she is somewhat intimidated. She said, “Playing Mahler takes an incredible amount of skill and demands a lot physically. It’s really exhausting.”

Berry also noted that, in Mahler symphonies, “every section has difficult, exposed, sections; there’s no hiding.”

Another intimidating musical factor is that the piece is entirely in German, which isn’t usually a problem, because music is printed in more or less the same way all over the world. But Mahler’s symphonies are loaded with supplemental instructive notes, which are all printed in German on the music.

“Yaacov Bergman, the conductor, put a glossary of 309 German terms in our packets of music,” said Faulkner. “I can find all 309 German markings in my music and pencil in the definitions, or I can put the list on my stand next to my music and try to look up each word as it comes along. Neither sounds very appealing.”

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