From the Oscars to Fargo, 121-year-old Mahler symphony is back in the spotlight

Composer's monumental Symphony No. 5 to be showcased this weekend by the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra

Benjamin Sung
Former Fargo-Moorhead Symphony concertmaster Benjamin Sung returns to play with the group at this weekend's concerts.
Forum file photo

FARGO — Gustav Mahler wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1902, but 121 years later, the epic composition is still creating a buzz.

The work was central to Cate Blanchet’s titular character in the Oscar-nominated “Tár” as the celebrated conductor approaches the mammoth composition during her fall from grace.

Just how big of a piece is it? So big that it is the only work being performed at this weekend’s Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks concert.

“It’s a really taxing piece for the orchestra,” says Christopher Zimmerman, FMSO’s music director. “Every Mahler symphony is very hard. There’s so much mood, emotion and even its size.”

Christopher Zimmerman
Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra conductor Christopher Zimmerman, seen here conducting a rehearsal in 2017.
Forum file photo

To boost the sound some extra string players have been brought in, including former concertmaster Benjamin Sung who is making a guest appearance while current concertmaster Sonja Bosca Harasim is on maternity leave.


“Any Mahler is a big deal for any symphony,” Sung says from his home in Tallahassee. “He uses the orchestra in a completely different way than any other composer. He’ll use a choir or multiple choirs and the long movements that are very demanding.”

The five movements clock in around 80 minutes. Zimmerman programmed the concert with an intermission between the third and fourth movements.

It’s not the longest Mahler composition — Zimmerman says Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, is almost 30 minutes longer — but the fifth is an endurance piece for the musicians.

“People will feel like we’ve climbed Mount Everest,” says Russ Peterson, FMSO principal bassoonist . As a marathon runner, he knows something about endurance tests. Still, he’s looking forward to playing the work for the first time.

Peterson says he’s seen a performance of the piece where the horn player stands throughout the third movement.

While this week and last week have been spring break on college campuses, college teachers in the FMSO have been busy cracking the books, studying Mahler’s score, which includes copious notes directing how the piece should be played.

“He’s asking for such detail from everyone. It creates a sound unlike anyone,” Sung says, adding that the score, written in Mahler’s native German, includes notes like “pushing forward” “don’t slow down” and “with inner tension.”

Mahler’s notes are like those of a film director, Zimmerman says, explaining that acting is more than just memorizing the lines, actors must bring depth and emotion from the page to the performance, just like musicians.


Symphony No. 5 is full of drama and evolution. The piece opens with a solo trumpet playing a somber funeral march.

“It's on most every trumpet player’s bucket list,” says Tom Strait, principal trumpet in the FMSO. “It’s like throwing red meat to a trumpet player. It’s just glorious. It’s an emotionally stirring piece. It can’t help but to move you.”

That opening of the section is featured in one of the most dramatic scenes in “Tár” as Blanchett’s character struggles as her world falls apart from under her. Trying to regain control of the orchestra, she yells, “This is my score!”

One translation of Mahler’s notes describes the second movement as “moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence” and Zimmerman describes the third movement as, “enormous upheaval” and “cataclysmic.”

After the intermission the fourth movement, Adagietto, brings some light as it’s written in F major. Zimmerman says it may have been inspired by Alma as they were married while he was composing it. Still, there’s a sense of sadness to the movement and it was prominently featured in the 1971 film adaptation of “Death in Venice.”

In a Facebook post last week, the FMSO wrote that musician Leonard Bernstein was buried with a score of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, opened to the Adagietto movement over his chest.

The final movement carries on that transition out of the darkness, but near the very end, Mahler throws in another cloud.

“The very, very end is uplifting, but there’s this sudden shadow just before the finish, a flash of darkness that’s there and gone again. A slightly sinister flash,” Zimmerman says.


Sung recalls hearing someone explain, “Every one of Mahler’s symphonies is like a universe. Every scope of expression in one piece.”

“It’s more than a concert’s worth of impactful expression,” the violinist adds.

If you go

What: FM Symphony Orchestra

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 18, and 2 p.m. March 19

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Info: Tickets range from $32 to $50,

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For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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