Swan Songs: A Departing Symphony Conductor’s Homage to Mahler’s Ninth

Program selection is an art in itself among symphony conductors, quite apart from everything they do at the podium. But some program choices come easy, which appeared to be the case this past weekend in Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Bruno Ferrandis’s farewell concert after a robust 12-year tenure.

For his final concert weekend, the last performance of which I was privileged to see and hear on Monday night, he zeroed in on Gustav Mahler’s epic Ninth Symphony, long in duration (80+ minutes, depending on who’s conducting) and large as only an ambitious symphony can be in emotional force.

Mahler’s Ninth, quite uncoincidentally, is about endings, leave-takings, death, a subject it explores on a grand scale before it finally, ever so delicately, like the tiniest moth landing on a slowly swaying blade of grass, comes to rest and silence in a final movement wholly unlike any other in the repertoire.

Ferrandis obviously chose it to give heft and emotional resonance to his own departure, a last grand gesture of love for his orchestra, his stateside community (he’s a courtly Frenchman with family in Paris), and perhaps most acutely, to Mahler himself. He did so with a passion familiar to any artist who has immersed deeply into the work, life and aesthetic of another.


Mahler wrote the Ninth Symphony from 1908-1909, fresh on the heels of his 4-year-old daughter’s death and the shocking diagnosis of his own serious heart condition about which he hadn’t a clue, but that would lead to his own death in 1911 at age 59.

And there was the matter of storm clouds gathering over Europe, a sense of the world careening under the weight of modernism mashed up with the same ancient aggressions that had dogged humanity since its cave-dwelling days.

Besides which, his marriage was a mess. Mahler, like many artists, was not an easy man, and his wife chafed under his dictums that would quash her own composing career and life in order to fully serve his genius. (Later, he would see none other than Sigmund Freud himself, who reportedly exposed Gustav to the notion that Alma Mahler deserved her own artistic passions, which she was then able to pursue as Mahler heeded the counsel of the good doctor.)

The Ninth Symphony takes its sweet time, an opening slow movement meandering along for over 25 minutes setting the tone. (Many entire symphonies aren’t much longer.) The faster middle movements have the entire orchestra engaged and energetic, batting themes back and forth between each section with plentiful chances for soloists to shine. (The percussion section directly below me earned its keep with remarkable flurries of activity that had them up and down and prowling among their instruments like tigers in a cage.)

Bruno Ferrandis

Then the finale, a nearly half-hour ache of feeling and reflection building to a “climax” that abjures the more usual crescendos leading to bombast and resolution under the conductor’s vigorous baton. Instead, it slows and shrinks in volume, second by ever more peaceful second, the heartbeat and blood and life force ebbing to its final quietude.

There’s no fight left, no resistance to the waning waves. As the last plaintive notes fade to nada from the strings, barely discernible until they are no more, the entire symphony hall becomes a house of prayer, not of a beseeching or creedal sort, but instead enveloped in stillness and acceptance of all that is, all that ever was, in a life now fully spent and done.

“It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate…in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything,” remarked one of Mahler’s most loving and persistent interpreters, Leonard Bernstein.

I’m not so sure about the terror, though I can certainly vouch for the paralysis of those final few moments of the Ninth, when one hardly dares breathe for fear it will descend as a hurricane upon one’s helpless and hypnotized fellow audience members.

After the dying last note, Ferrandis was paralyzed himself, utterly still as was every other soul in the hall around him, unwilling to break the spell for several long moments until he “released” everyone by lowering his baton and we returned, with a mixture of reluctance and profound appreciation, to the still spinning world that awaited.

And still alive, other than Maestro Mahler, though one could argue otherwise via each note, each held and finally expelled breath of an enchanted musical evening.

You Tube is full of complete Ninth Symphonies, as well as entire fourth movements, but here’s the final four minutes under an emotionally spent Leonard Bernstein…

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Mahler portrait in public domain, Ferrandis photo courtesy of Santa Rosa Symphony

9 comments to Swan Songs: A Departing Symphony Conductor’s Homage to Mahler’s Ninth

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Mahler’s 9th is truly one of the great symphonies in classical music. Although quite modern in its musical conventions, his compositions include a number of “romantic” elements. He was particularly influenced by Beethoven’s 9th (who wasn’t). His 4th symphony like Beethoven’s 9th contains text. However, Mahler wrote his own text (a child’s vision of heaven) unlike Ludwig whose “Ode to Joy” was a Friedrich Schiller poem. Unfortunately, Mahler died never hearing/seeing his 9th symphony performed. Bruno Ferrandis could not have chosen a better “swan song.” As a side note, I wish Mahler had not devoted so much time to his conducting career because it stole time from his calling as a composer.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Robert, even the great Mahler was akin to probably 99.99% of all artists in history—needing to tend to a day job that would pay his bills. The consolation, I suspect, was that conducting felt to him like a consonant enough activity with his composing, unlike, say, selling insurance or working as a statistician for the Bureau of Labor would have been. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those…) :-)

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Exquisitely done, Andrew. Robert, many thanks for the fact of Mahler’s death prior to ever hearing the 9th performed. For me, this adds to the heart-heavy feeling I have upon hearing those final four minutes. In reading the blog and then watching/listening to Bernstein’s softly emotional finale I was struck by a much different “swan song” event that touched me many years ago; though clearly from a far removed musical genre. The Band and their “The Last Waltz” touched me deeply in the 70’s as a testimony to the depths of farewells and the willingness to let go of life’s prime, as The Band and their many musical friends and mentors demonstrated on that stage in San Francisco. Many years later, 1992 to be exact, I was finishing my run as a college basketball coach in Colorado. We had a remarkable group of seniors in that final season that had broken school and athletic conference records, and were inseparable as a group of friends and fellow competitors. As we awaited our final road game following a long bus ride to Chadron, Nebraska I wanted them to feel and put into context the meaning of their many long road trips, tough battles, and resulting brotherhood. I took along “The Last Waltz” DVD and shared it with them in the hotel on the afternoon preceding our final road contest: right there at the Super 8 in Chadron Nebraska. It took some explaining as they were not of the Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Band, et al generation. The music seemed dated (it was) and odd to them; but they did appreciate the interviews interspersed by Scorcese with members of The Band expressing their feeling about their last gig together and the many experiences along the way now relegated to memory. It certainly ain’t Mahler, but for many of us glancing in the rearview mirror of youth and prime years of life, it is worth seeing again.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    The Band’s long association with Dylan impacted so many of their own compositions as well as tours and studio work on several of his albums like “Blonde on Blonde”. Jay, if my players didn’t enjoy “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Last Waltz,” I believe I would have forgone practice for headphones. In the scheme of things, the Band is a lifetime experience while the jumper is transitory at best.

    Mahler’s focus on conducting was entirely a financial decision. Unfair, almost non-existent,copyright laws and the abandonment of the “patronage” system dramatically reduced a composer’s ability to make a comfortable living. How many of us, even today, make career decisions based on practicality rather than passion? If my dad didn’t have to support a family of six, I doubt he would have chosen a Harvard PhD over studio art, which fortunately in retirement he pursued on a more full-time basis.

    As I look back on the music I enjoyed in high school and college, I’m grateful today that my record collection covered so many genres. I owned albums/compositions by Duke Ellington, Dylan, Memphis Slim, Sinatra, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Bach, Mozart, Satchmo, the Stones, Beethoven, Goodman, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Billie Holiday, Kristofferson, and Hank Williams. Too often, especially nowadays, teens listen to a single type of genre of music. It’s either all rock or all rap.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, I think the image of a coach firing up “The Last Waltz” for his college basketball team on DVD in a Super 8 motel in Chadron, Nebraska in the dead of winter, almost 15 years after its debut, is gonna stay with me for a long, long while. An inspiring, or even if some of your players didn’t altogether get it, at the very least an “inspired” choice, I dare say. It strikes me how bad guys generally are at ritual—acknowledging beginnings, endings, alliances, heartbreaks—and that the only “safe,” acceptable venues for them to experience that are the military and on sports teams. I’m glad you tried to give your guys a proper sense of import and a glimmer of how they would appreciate their experience in the future.

    Robert, I have long made a point of listening to my daughter’s music whenever I can snag some time with her in the car. I even like some of it, even the rap, though other parts of it are crap. Just like music in every era, is what I tell her. It’s less about genre, I think, than it is about simply good music and bad music. We just know when the sounds we’re hearing are making our hips swing, feet tap, or our brains get engaged, and when they don’t. But jeez, I can’t believe you left Cole Porter off from that otherwise cool list. Cheesh!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I had an album “Sinatra Sings Cole Porter.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      OK, you’re redeemed…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Andrew and Robert, Many thanks for acknowledging my post regarding The Band and my ’90’s hoops team. It relieved me of some regret I had that I may have trivialized the deeper farewell message of the original post. I like to think that the guys appreciated Dylan and The Band but just couldn’t get their heads around some of the other performers that came on stage (though to me all were fabulous). Who can forget the silhouette of Joni Mitchell singing background to Neil Young on Helpless, Helpless. Let’s pull up the DVD the next time we all get together.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, your concern about this has me thinking we need some sort of flipside to the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff.” Something along the lines of, “Don’t trivialize the big stuff—and it’s all big stuff.”

      Metaphor lives!

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