“This is the music that made me become a conductor,” he said of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, composed from 1893 to 1896. Orchestra Iowa will perform the work Saturday night (6/2) at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.
“I’ve only heard this piece performed live twice in my life,” Hankewich said. “The first was when I was a student at Indiana University, and the second was when I was starting my career on the conducting staff of the Oregon symphony. I remember after the program, toasting my mentor, Maestro James DePreist, congratulating him on his performance. I’ll never forget his response. He looked back to me and toasted me back, and he said: ‘And here’s to the day you get to perform this yourself.’
“That time is now,” Hankewich said.
It promises to be a rare opportunity for musicians and audiences alike.
“It’s absolutely glorious,” Hankewich said. “It makes everything else that we do in our daily professional lives child’s play. It demands the maximum musicianship and capabilities from all of your musicians, whether you’re a violinist, the fourth trumpet or the eighth horn. You have to be an extremely accomplished musician just to even approach playing this music technically, let alone musically.”
He hopes audiences will take a chance on a piece they may not know and may not be programmed again for 20 years.
“For the past few years, audiences have learned I tend to gravitate toward rarities,” he said. “Performances of Mahler’s works in general are rare, and this one in particular is extremely rare.
“In this part of the world, Mahler is not a household name, and when people don’t know what they’re missing, they tend not to experiment, even though this is the best we have to offer in the repertoire.”
In addition to the “extreme depth of talent” required to embrace the massive work, which clocks in at an hour and 40 minutes, it also requires 90 to 100 instrumentalists and more than 100 vocalists to fully convey Mahler’s vision of the afterlife.
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Sigourney native and University of Iowa graduate Katharine Goeldner, who now lives in Salzburg, Austria, is returning to Eastern Iowa to sing the mezzo-soprano solos. “She is a force of nature,” Hankewich said, and will be joined by the women of Chorale Midwest and the Children’s Discovery Chorus, filling every inch of the Paramount stage.
It’s expensive to mount, as well. “(With) the sheer number of people you need to perform this work, at the end of the day, this single performance will cost Orchestra Iowa well up into the five figures.”
But the payoff is grand.
“The underlying message behind the piece, itself, is very profound,” Hankewich said. “Mahler was a very spiritual person and composer. For the most part, all of his symphonies philosophically explore the notion of moving from life to the afterlife.”
In the first movement, audiences will hear a funeral march, “with incredibly dramatic outbursts from the orchestra,” Hankewich said, along with music from Mahler’s childhood — klezmer, military marches, gazebo music and drinking songs.
The second movement is more genteel, “like an elegant Viennese cosmopolitan movement that’s incredibly charming.”
The third movement takes on a more sinister tone, “juxtaposing different musical elements in unusual psychological context.”
The next movement features Goeldner singing a text written by Nietzsche about the profound nature of human mortality, Hankewich said. The women and children’s choruses will join her for the fifth movement, portraying a child’s vision of heaven, “where food is plentiful.”
“For me, the payoff is the sixth and final movement, which is this slow, unbelievably gorgeous movement that just keeps unfolding and getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It is his musical depiction of Elysium,” Hankewich said.
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“If he’s even halfway correct — wow. It is one of the most moving moments of music I have ever experienced.”
WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: Mahler Symphony No. 3
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (6/2)
TICKETS: $16 to $54, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Artsiowa.com
GUESTS: Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner, Chorale Midwest women’s ensemble, Discovery Chorus