Mahler’s Ninth, From the Inside

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Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl StClair, right, tries to put himself in Mahler’s state of mind when conducting the composer’s Ninth Symphony, his final work.

Gustav Mahler, a controversial figure for most of his life, was just 49 when he finished his Ninth Symphony—an epic and iconic 85-minute work that served as both a revealing self-portrait and a personal quest.

In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his music, the Pacific Symphony is takikng its audience on an inward journey into the mind of a genius for “Mahler’s Ninth,” led by Music Director Carl St.Clair, as part of the symphony’s “Music Unwound” series tonight and Saturday.

Considered one of Mahler’s greatest works, the Ninth Symphony was written soon after the composer received the diagnosis of terminal heart disease and reveals the his innermost conflicts, a profound, lifelong fear of death and a deep desire for the joys of life.

“When we perform Mahler’s Ninth, we will experience something Mahler himself never did,” says St.Clair, who feels a deep affinity for Mahler and this particular piece. “He never got to hear it or conduct it… I am always haunted by that.”

Mahler may not have lived to hear his Ninth Symphony played, but he did leave it for all to experience his sadness, torment and finally, a dignified, quiet affirmation of life.

“In the Ninth Symphony, Mahler’s farewell, he is gradually letting go, becoming more comfortable with the idea of departing this world,” says St.Clair, “and when I conduct it, I also have to let go. It’s counter-intuitive – usually I have to keep a tight rein when I conduct – but for this symphony, I have to let go in order to understand where Mahler was when he composed the piece. When we perform his Ninth, I am not in a sad place – although I used to be – I am in the most ethereal, out-of-body place I can go.”

The concerts begin at 8 p.m., but the audience is invited to arrive at 7 p.m. for a special pre-concert presentation, “I Beg You to Be Truthful! – The Marriage of Gustav and Alma Mahler: A Self-Portrait in Letters,” written by Joseph Horowitz, the Symphony’s artistic advisor. Setting a tone of discovery, the presentation delves into the lives of Mahler and his wif,e Alma, played by actors Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett (who also performed the part of Tchaikovsky at different stages of the composer’s life in the 2009-10 season’s “A Tchaikovsky Portrait”), and inspired by the book “Gustav Mahler: Letters to his Wife,” edited by Henry-Louis de La Grange and Günther Weiss in collaboration with Knud Martner (Cornell University Press).

After the 30-minute presentation, patrons may wish to return to the lobby, where images from Mahler’s life and letters exchanged between the composer and his wife are on display.

The first half of the concert (without orchestra) features a performance of Um Mitternacht (At midnight); Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance); and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, performed by baritone Christòpheren Nomura and pianist Hye-Young Kim. In essence, these songs are a summation of the thoughts and feelings Mahler experienced when he wrote the Ninth Symphony.

The first half also includes a voice recording of Mahler’s daughter Anna talking about her father. According to St.Clair, this is “so the audience might connect to him as a human being—a man who was a father and a husband.”

The orchestra will perform for the second half of the concert, which is devoted to Mahler’s epic Ninth Symphony. A post-concert conversation led by St.Clair and Horowitz will follow.

“Mahler’s Ninth is a work that cannot be adequately experienced as mere music,” says Horowitz. “Its self-evident passages of personal upheaval, of ecstasy and resignation, demand investment into the questions consuming its author: questions about the meaning and purpose of life on earth.”

Performances are tonight and Saturday at the Segerstrom Concert Hall, beginning at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$110; for more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit

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