My Mahler Story Begins

One of the interesting aspects of this particular project is that for most of the Pendleton, Oregon audience, Mahler is completely unknown music. It’s a rare privilege for a conductor to be able to introduce this music, now so widely loved and accepted, to a new audience.

Already, I’ve experienced some of the most fascinating contrasts- we have some absolutely outstanding players joining the orchestra for this who are coming for far less than they would make on a typical weekend in Portland or Seattle freelancing who are doing so solely because of how much they love the music. On the other hand, some other, less well-traveled players, for whom Mahler is uncharted territory, have already asked me what I see in this piece.  Of course, in his day, Mahler’s music was often met with incomprehension, distrust and even revulsion. For those of us immersed in his music, we should remember that it is challenging stuff- long, complex, demanding and emotionally draining. As I try to prepare myself to bring a new group of listeners along on this journey, I thought I might revisit my earliest experiences with Mahler.  

The first Mahler piece I ever heard was Das Lied von der Erde, played live by the University of Wisconsin-Madison symphony under conductor Catherine Comet (perhaps one reason I’ve never been surprised to see women excelling on the podium) when I was about 10 years old. My parents took me to UW concerts often, and I remember on this occasion running into one of my father’s chemistry PhD students who played violin in the orchestra. When we asked her what was on the program that night she described it as “some insanely long, totally bizarre vocal piece.” Long it was, but I remember being fascinated by the exotic orchestral sounds- it wasn’t like anything else I had ever heard, and in it’s length there really was a sense of the eternal which was also expressed in the final poem. A few years later, when I was a freshman in high school, a German youth orchestra came to our school on tour, performing Mahler 1. When Tom Buchauser, our wonderful orchestra director, told me about the show and suggested I come, I didn’t recognize the name of the composer. As I listened I would never have realized it was the same composer as Das Lied several years before- it was a whole different sound world, without the exotic, other-worldly oriental-isms of Das Lied. Still, it was like nothing I’d heard, and I loved the ending when the horns stood, and the sheer size of the piece. The next day I went to the library and found a recording and from there I was well on my way to being a Mahler nut.   

Mahler’s music was such a discovery that I always felt compelled to try to get others interested in it, including parents, teachers, friends.

In my senior year in H.S my advanced culture class had an assignment which involved giving an extended presentation on a creative artist of our choosing. I chose Mahler, and set about reading the de La Grange biography of Mahler (all the volumes then available) as well as everything else I could find on him in the public library. As I realized that the musical excerpts needed to make the presentation make any sense were going to use up most of my time, I asked the teacher if I could have 50 minutes instead of 25 and she agreed. The reward for my many hours preparation was at the end when the class asked if we could take another day to actually listen to the entire 8th symphony- they were so fascinated by the idea of this epic, grandiose, all-encompassing world of music that they had to hear it.  In my experience, and in that of my young fellow-students, I think it was not just the music that excited us; it was the idea of his music, this concept of a musical work as all-encompassing. There’s something inspiring just in the concept of Mahler- those very qualities that scare new listeners quickly become those that fascinate. My mission now is to pass on that fascination to a new community of listeners.   KW   


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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