Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 is having a moment — or more accurately, another moment. The 121-year-old work, by the sublimely neurotic Austrian composer, confused its first listeners, but later enjoyed a pop culture boost when its lovely Adagietto movement appeared in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice. Before that, the same music served as a luxurious dirge, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, at Robert Kennedy's funeral service in 1968. Now Mahler 5, as it's often called, is back in the spotlight as its darkest music haunts the Oscar favorite Tár. Todd Field's film is nominated for six Academy Awards, including best actress for Cate Blanchett's arresting performance as the fictional Lydia Tár — a Promethean conductor at the top of her game, who takes a symphonic-sized fall from grace.
Since its release last fall, Tár has inspired a flurry of discourse from critics and real-life conductors, including Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, Simone Young and Leonard Slatkin, questioning everything from the film's choice of a woman in the lead role to the accuracy of its arcane classical-world details to what it says — and does not say — about the Fifth Symphony itself. Mahler composed it over a two-year stretch when his life was about as good as it would get: After a serious health scare, he settled back into his job directing the illustrious Vienna Opera, built a lakeside villa for summertime composing, married Alma Schindler and had two daughters. Just a few years later, his 4-year-old daughter would be dead of scarlet fever and his marriage would be failing, along with his health. But at this peak of his life and career, he created a work that ultimately triumphs in sunny exuberance.
Another musician who has both seen Tár and has a deep feel for Mahler's music is the rising conductor Rafael Payare. As a youthful horn player in the Venezuelan music education program El Sistema, Payare performed Mahler 5 frequently under conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Now, at 43, Payare is leading the symphony on tour in his first season as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (the same title he holds with the San Diego Symphony), and has just released a recording of Mahler 5.
From London, where he was conducting Rossini's Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House, Payare joined a video chat to talk about Mahler 5 and the man behind it, whose life story he believes is the key to understanding it all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Huizenga: Right now, you can't really talk about Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony without mentioning the film Tár, about a fictional world-famous conductor trying to grapple with Mahler's massive score just as the rest of her life is starting to come apart. What was happening in Mahler's own life at the time this symphony came to be?
Rafael Payare: Everything was going in the right direction. He had already been appointed music director in Vienna. He had his wife, Alma. His music was being performed. He was at the pinnacle. After that, everything started to turn. I mean Mahler didn't collapse, but even philosophically everything started to turn, and not even a decade later he was dead. And in the movie, we can see that [Cate Blanchett's character] is at the top of everything, and then it's a full roller coaster going down until — well, spoiler alert — until the very end.
The conductor in the film has recorded all of Mahler's symphonies except the Fifth, saving it for last. But you have chosen this symphony as one of the first pieces to perform on tour since taking over the Montreal Symphony Orchestra this season. For you it's a calling card, rather than a final mountain to climb. Why is this symphony important for you at the beginning of your tenure in Montreal?
It's this kind of showcase: It treats the orchestra in a virtuosic, completely amazing way, and compared to his previous symphonies, it gives you everything a little bit more compressed. It starts in a very dark place, where you have a funeral march at the beginning, then a very stormy second movement. Then the symphony gets into a kind of waltz, and the Adagietto movement that's like a love letter. And the concluding Rondo final — that is absolutely an ebullience of life, like drinking a glass of champagne.
The film leads us to believe that Mahler 5 is a particularly tough nut to crack. For you, what are its greatest challenges?
The third movement, technically, is really complicated for the orchestra. When you are conducting an ensemble you need things to align, but here they are not supposed to. If you make it all align vertically it sounds too controlled — and yet it shouldn't sound messy. Then you have the Adagietto, and that is wonderful, to work with the sound of the strings. In the fifth movement, you have all of this color happening, then you have a klezmer-like sound in between. So it's complicated. But once you get it in your DNA, it is just fantastic. Mahler likes to say that his symphonies are supposed to have everything in them, like the universe. And it is a wonderful universe to be in.
Watching the Tár character move through her life, did you feel the film tells us anything about the art of conducting?
Well, not really. It shows getting into private planes, getting to another concert here and there, how she pulls strings to get her way — and of course, Cate Blanchett is just magnificent. But there are many other things that are so well put, things that in our world we will know: this name or that name, the little meetings you need to have because you need to go to a rehearsal. It would be interesting to know how someone who is not in this classical music world takes the movie, because it's slow-paced and bracing and never stops.
In the movie, Mahler's Fifth seems like such a beast of a thing, with its gargantuan size and explosive passages, but really there's much joy and beauty to be found in the music. Did that feel unfair to you, like an inaccurate picture of the symphony for someone who may be encountering it for the first time?
It could be they wanted to make the point that for this fictional character, Tár, the music was the actual "monster" to be conquered. In reality, this is not the biggest Mahler Symphony, not the one with the biggest orchestration or the most musicians on stage. With the Eighth Symphony, for example, you can have [as many as] a thousand voices and then the orchestra. I think that in the movie it is specific to her. It's not really about the piece, but about the character.
If you were the music consultant on a movie that starred Mahler's Fifth, what aspects of the music would you highlight? In Tár, we don't really hear that much of the symphony itself.
You're absolutely right. In the movie they showcase the very beginning, which is very dark, then a little bit of the second movement — very little — then they put in a little bit of the Adagietto, and that's it. You don't see that other joyful, amazing part of Mahler. You could have had the full brass chorale; you only get 10 seconds of it, and in a movie theater you would get that full surround sound, it would be amazing. And the ending, the last 35 seconds of the symphony, is just fantastic. But maybe because it's so life-affirming, that wasn't what the filmmaker wanted. They really want to spiral down into what was going to be the end of the movie.
Mahler 5 is clearly a Mount Everest challenge for Lydia Tár. Is there a similar piece for you, a piece that you desire — or feel pressure — to tackle in your career, but just aren't quite ready for yet?
The repertoire is so vast. There are things that I want to get to, but it's not that I want to wait — I have to wait. I want to do my first Ring cycle, but you're not going to mount a Ring cycle every day.
No, I think it has to be Mahler 9. [For a long time] I didn't want to tackle any of the Mahler symphonies after number Five. I have studied the symphonies Six, Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten, but I didn't want to perform them until I was at least 40. Because Mahler started to let the dust settle, and he sees things in a different way, accepting more what life is actually throwing in his face. We know that Mahler had a near-death experience with a hemorrhage ... but then he found what he thought was his soul mate with Alma Schindler and everything started to be a kind of embrace of life, almost like a child, with a little bit of naiveté.
So I wanted to plan it like this. It doesn't mean that it's an Everest, but I wanted to wait. And we're actually going into a Mahler cycle with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra: This season we're closing with the Third, then next season we're doing Mahler 7. I think Mahler 9 will come probably in a year. I am going into this kind of Mahlerian wave. But if you would have asked me this question five years ago, I would say no, I still don't know when I would do it.
Clearly Mahler is an important composer for you right now. What does the Fifth Symphony ultimately mean to you, now that you're so immersed in it?
It is quite personal. When I was a horn player in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, I had to play this symphony a lot with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. It was a symphony that kind of grew up within me. And it portrays many different states of life, so I've been growing with it, and it's something that I understand. Even though it's one of those pieces that is clearly difficult, it is just part of who I am somehow.
I would imagine you'll think of Mahler 5 and conduct it a little differently 10 years from now, maybe even five.
I'm sure that even three months from now, it's going to be different. This is the beauty of what we do — it always keeps evolving.