2021 MahlerFest features hike, concerts, “decadence and debauchery”

Festival returns to Boulder Aug. 24–29, with extras


From “Decadence and Debauchery” to fifth symphonies to a hike in the mountains, the 2021 Colorado MahlerFest will cover a lot of ground, literally and figuratively.

Over five days, Tuesday–Saturday Aug. 24–28, concerts, films and a symposium will explore the music of Gustav Mahler, his contemporaries and heirs, in venues from the Dairy Arts Center to the Huntington Bandshell and Mackey Auditorium. Composers will include Mahler’s European contemporaries and successors Korngold and Krenek, but also American ragtime musicians Scott Joplin and James Reese Europe. 

And on Sunday, Aug. 29, there will be a hike to Lake Agnes beneath the peak of Mt. Mahler in Jackson County.

Titled “The Return,” 2021’s MahlerFest XXXIV represents a resumption of the festival’s annual series, interrupted last year by COVID-19. “It’s going to be a celebration of music as a force of renewal,” Artistic Director Kenneth Woods says.

Not that the pandemic hasn’t affected the festival. Holding the festival in August rather than May resulted from health considerations. Masks will be required at all indoor events. Guest composer Philip Sawyers, who has emulated Mahler with a series of symphonies, is unable to attend in person but will participate virtually.

Jason Ashwood Philip Sawyers

In person or not, Sawyers will have a presence at the festival. The final concert on Aug. 28 will present the world premiere of his Symphony No. 5, alongside Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, his Violin Sonata No. 1 will be featured on a chamber concert titled “Maher’s Heirs” Aug. 26, and he will be a digital participant in the symposium Aug. 28. 

The coincidence of having two fifth symphonies on the final concert is fortuitous. “The question of which Mahler symphony [to perform this year] was tricky,” Woods explains. The festival presented the First Symphony in 2019, so the Second would be next in the normal rotation, but it requires a large chorus, which is not wise during a pandemic.

“We had already done Seven, [and] Six is an awfully dark piece after two years of pandemic. I wanted to do something uplifting, so it had to be Five,” Woods says.

He finds the Fifth Symphony particularly suitable this year. “Mahler Five is about [the composer] fighting back from one of his first big setbacks in life, and in the process winning the girl and writing the symphony. It’s the sense that life has resumed.”

Sawyers traces his love for Mahler back to when he heard his first Mahler recording. “I was so blown away!” he says. And today, he acknowledges Mahler’s influence in his music, particularly the use of brass instruments and harmonies that ultimately resolve traditionally.

More than that, it is his conception of the symphony as a whole. “A symphony, however dark it begins, has to have a sense of movement,” he says. “The cumulative effect, not just of a single movement but of all movements put together, is very important at the end. When I’m writing, a sense of direction is fundamental.”

Sawyers’s Fifth Symphony, like Mahler’s, is in five movements. “The largest are the first, third and fifth,” Sawyers says. “The second and fourth movements are both constructed as intermezzi that fit around the central slow movement.”

It was pure coincidence that Sawyers finished the symphony just as Woods was looking to fill out the MahlerFest program. “Phil had finished the piece a few months ago, and I looked at it and was thrilled,” he says. 

“It just hit me like a lightning bolt: Fifth Symphony, five movements, similar structures — it would be perfect. What could be more exciting than to come back from this terrible disruption and make a big statement that not only is the festival alive, the tradition of symphonic music is alive.”

The two chamber concerts played by MahlerFest artists, Aug. 24 and 26, feature composers related to Mahler. “This year we’re very clearly dividing into Mahler’s contemporaries and Mahler’s heirs,” Woods says. In other words, “that generation right around Mahler’s time, who were breathing the same air, and then that generation after him.”

The programs include composers that are not well known today, including Ernst Krenek and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. “Looking at these composers, there’s just so much amazing music — so much repertoire that got lost after the war.”

New this year is a free concert at the Huntington Bandshell on Canyon Boulevard. Played by a chamber orchestra, the program will include American jazz of the years after Mahler’s death. “We’re starting Friday’s concert with Maple Leaf Rag, which to me is the big bang of American music,” Woods says. “From ragtime you get jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, everything — and it’s reached the whole world.

“That’s one of my favorite eras of music — the jazz age. Let it all hang out!” 

Colorado MahlerFest XXXIV

7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24, Dairy Arts Center:

‘Mahler’s Contemporaries’

4 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 25, Dairy Arts Center:

Films by Jason Starr: ‘Mahler’s Titan’ and ‘On Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer’ 

4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 26, The Academy, 970 Aurora Ave., Boulder:

‘Mahler’s Heirs’

8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27, Huntington Bandshell, 1212 Canyon Boulevard, Boulder:

‘Decadence and Debauchery: Music of the Roaring ‘20s”

9 a.m.–3 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 28, License No. 1, 2115 13th St., Boulder:

Symposium at the Bar

7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder:

‘Festival Finale: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony”

7 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 29

Visit Mount Mahler

Information, tickets and registration for free events:

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