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Dr. Olson Challenges Orchestra with Mahler


For a new orchestra, many university directors start their students with easier first pieces. They gradually work on refining the orchestra’s technique and mastery throughout the semester, step by step.

But not UMKC Professor and Director of Orchestras Dr. Robert Olson. Olson prefers to challenge his musicians immediately, choosing pieces that require many of his players and require them all to learn the things they must as a unit learn how to do.

“If I can get one piece that uses almost everybody – bingo,” said Olson. “I’m taking care of all these issues all at once, with everybody.”

UMKC Conservatory Orchestra began the fall 2016 semester with Mahler’s Totenfeier and all four movements of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47 at last Friday’s concert. According to Olson, Mahler is one of the hardest pieces to play. Some believe Mahler is dark and focused on death. But Dr. Olson disagrees.

“Mahler is all about death and life — in that order,” said Olson, which is present in Totenfeier, or “Funeral Rites.

“You can hear every one of the tales in the music. It’s telling a story, and it’s a single movement piece — that’s a Totenfeier.”

The drama of Totenfeier ebbed and flowed in the White Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center last Friday with the strings and the wind instruments playing the story beautifully.

“And then we hear the lowering of the coffin into the ground – bah bah bah bah bah bah bah,” said Dr. Olson. “Then the ultimate breath. And then the last breath.”

Totenfeier is the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, also called “The Resurrection Symphony.” The rest of the symphony, said Olson, would reveal to a listener the great joy to be found in the end of the journey that is life.

Shostakovich, in contrast to Mahler, wrote his Symphony No. 5 “as a slap in the [totalitarian] government’s face,” said Olson. “It’s a symphony on one note, a repeated note.”

The irony seemed obvious at times, not lost on a silent, captivated audience.

Shostakovich’s point was “since you [the government] are not very bright, I’m going to repeat this note so many times that you can’t miss it,” said Olson. “This is the underlying theme of the whole piece…. This hitting you over the head with a single note.”

Olson received the Golden Mahler award for his renowned Colorado MahlerFest in 2005, in the company of the New York Philharmonic. Only about 50 other such awards have been awarded.

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