For Harvey Felder, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a journey from struggle to triumph – and that’s exactly why he’s chosen that iconic Romantic work to be the final one he conducts as music director of the Tacoma Symphony. Felder’s own 20-year journey with the orchestra has seen plenty of ups and downs, and the conductor sees the symphony as the ideal musical symbol. Also on the program, held this Saturday in the Pantages, is Liszt’s bravura Piano Concerto no. 1, played by soloist Andrew Armstrong, and a piece by contemporary American composer Roberto Sierra .
“I love Mahler…his music means so much to orchestras and conductors,” says Felder. “This symphony is a journey of struggle, love, hope and ultimately triumph. It’s a wonderful narrative and I wanted to have that at my last concert as a representation of what we’ve gone through as an orchestra.”
Felder was hired by the orchestra’s board in 1993 with the charge of raising the standard from community orchestra to professional. During his first decade he made sweeping changes: auditioning all musicians to assess their skill, asking key players to leave if they weren’t “up to snuff,” changing rehearsals from once-weekly to a four-nights-before-the-concert basis, introducing new repertoire like late Romantic and some contemporary music, and being very picky about precision, rhythm and ensemble playing. In the last ten years Felder has brought the orchestra into the community, reaching out with venues like the Rialto, Tacoma Art Museum, Joint Base Lewis McChord and the Puyallup Fair; starting family concerts; working with youth musicians in schools; hiring local soloists and creating the Simply Symphonic series offering free educative concerts to local fifth graders.
But while the board, musicians and audience all agree that Felder has more than achieved what he came to do, there has been tension. Some players left before they were asked, others, like concertmaster Svend Rønning, describe Felder’s rehearsal style as “scary.”
“There’s been struggle, loss…a journey fraught with ups and downs,” says Felder.
The orchestra has played the piece before under Felder, and so he has a few things planned out already, like the tempi, which can’t go as slowly as Mahler originally specifies simply because the acoustic of the Pantages is so dry.
“In our hall, slow tempi are just deadly: the sound just drops, there’s no reverberation,” Felder explains.
And while some conductors like to separate the 70-minute work into discrete sections (the movements include a funeral march, a storm, a lighter scherzo, a slow adagio and a final, joking allegro), Felder prefers to keep the narrative arc by “moving things along.”
The work is also a large one instrumentally, including three of each woodwind (four flutes), six horns, an extensive percussion section and a harp added to the strings.
The Tacoma Symphony will play Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at “Felder Farewell,” 7:30 p.m. May 10. Tickets from $19. Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma. 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org, tacomasymphony.org