Amsterdam invites CSO to mega Mahler fest; van Zweden will lead 6th and 7th Symphonies
Report: The international festival in May 2025 will spotlight five orchestras from three continents; Chicago is sole U.S. ensemble.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which under Georg Solti built a formidable reputation in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler that continues undiminished to the present day, has been invited to an ambitious international Mahler festival in May 2025 to be hosted by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Five orchestras from three continents will contribute to a complete cycle of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies, plus “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth.
The CSO, which will play Mahler’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies under the baton of Jaap van Zweden, will be the only American orchestra in the mix. Also participating will be the Concertegbouw Orchestra with principal conductor-designate Klaus Mäkelä, in the First and Eighth Symphonies, the Berlin Philharmonic in the Ninth Symphony under music director Kirill Petrenko as well as “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony led by Daniel Barenboim, the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer in the Second and Fifth Symphonies, and the Tokyo NHK Symphony under Fabio Luisi playing the Third and Fourth Symphonies.
Story lines and connections are multifarious in the prospect of van Zweden taking the Chicago Symphony and Mahler to Amsterdam. In the golden era of Bernard Haitink’s reign as the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s principal conductor, van Zweden did a stint as concertmaster there. That’s quite a training ground on which to develop one’s Mahler chops. The Concertgebouw arguably owns the most distinguished historical association with Mahler of any orchestra in the world. The composer conducted his own symphonies there several times, and Mahler’s greatest champion during his lifetime was the Concertgebouw’s chief conductor, Willem Mengelberg.
Van Zweden is a compelling interpreter of Mahler’s music. After a blazing account of the Sixth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall last year, he returned last weekend with baritone Christian Gerhaher for a splendid clutch of songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn), Mahler’s evocative and eloquent settings of verses from a collection of German folk ballads.
Gerhaher breathes the irony, whimsy and tragedy of Mahler’s songs. I heard him in a full evening of Mahler with piano at Tully Hull in New York pre-pandemic. The baritone is the true Mahlerian successor to the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I’ve always had the feeling that when Gerhaher sings Mahler, the critic’s obligation is not to assess but to listen and learn. That said, in the “Wunderhorn” concerts Oct. 12-15, Gerhaher enjoyed a keenly sensitive collaborator in van Zweden and orchestral support that captured the full nuanced spectrum of Mahler’s vivid score.
The other major work on that CSO program, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, reminded one of how driven van Zweden can be on the podium – and yet how astutely he manages to convert energy to potent effect. Van Zweden is a consistently muscular conductor: crisp and clear in his direction, urgent and vivid in musical aspect. This was a brillant, headlong Fifth Symphony, but not for a moment did it feel heedless. Van Zweden went with something like Beethoven’s high-speed tempo markings; no overblown Victorian-era drama here. This was heady, hang on for dear life Beethoven, and yet always under control, always thoughtfully and engagingly shaped.
And with the air at Orchestra Hall still ringing, we now hear that it will be the Dutch conductor at the helm when the Chicagoans play Mahler in Amsterdam in May 2025. Might this be an augury of what happens next with the CSO music directorship up for grabs? Van Zweden, who will step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2024, begins an initial five-year engagement with the Seoul Philharmonic later that year. Does that take him out of the running for the CSO directorship? For that matter, does Klaus Mäkelä,’s ascendancy to the podium in Amsterdam in 2027 remove him from contention in Chicago?
However the CSO directorship may shake out, we know this: Mid-quest, there’s going to be one grand celebration of Mahler in Amsterdam, and the Chicago Symphony will be smack in the center of it.