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Colorado’s idyllic scenery has allured people from all over the world for centuries. But the state’s mountain majesties aren’t just drawing visitors as a mecca for rugged adventure-seeking—they’re also alive with music.
Especially our foothills. “There is a funny thing going on in Boulder,” says Jan Burton, board member of Create Boulder and former city councilwoman. “It’s a small town of 100,000 people, [but] there’s something like seven orchestras. We should not have that kind of music selection.”
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Emblematic of this unexpected hub for world-class music is Colorado MahlerFest, Boulder’s annual week-long celebration of the legacy of late Austro-Bohemian romantic composer and conductor Gustav Mahler—born in 1860 in what is now the Czech Republic and known for his commanding emotional works that would eventually lead him to be recognized as one of the most influential symphonic composers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Despite Mahler never having stepped foot in Colorado during his lifetime, the modern-day Front Range festival has become home to the longest-running event dedicated to his impact since its founding in 1988, drawing a professional ensemble each year to perform of one of Mahler’s major symphonic works along with other chamber and orchestral music influenced by the late Romantic’s pioneering sound. This year’s 36th annual MahlerFest will take place May 17–21 and feature a performance of Mahler’s epic Second Symphony as well as a program of concerts, a daylong symposium, multiple instrument master classes, dinners, as well as other free events across Boulder. And while people come from all over the world to play and attend, this internationally renowned festival is a gem still yet to be discovered by some members of its local community.
Burton herself hadn’t even heard of it until five years ago, when she voted with the City Council to designate May 21 as Colorado MahlerFest Day in honor of the nonprofit festival’s 30th anniversary. Since then, Burton has been a stalwart supporter, hosting visiting musicians in her house during the festival and raising awareness with the community. “Some people have lived here 30 years and didn’t know about MahlerFest,” she says. “They come to this event, and they are just blown away.”
Ethan Hecht, executive director of MahlerFest and principal violist of the Fort Collins Symphony jokes, “I’ve been known to call [Mahler] the emo composer, [with his] huge extremes from the highs and the lows, both emotionally and orchestration-wise.” The effect is overwhelming, he says. “It hits you in your gut in a way that I don’t think anything else does.”
Burton says she does wonder, as many other fans might, “Why isn’t this happening in Vienna?” where Mahler spent the height of his career as the conductor of the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler never once visited Boulder, let alone traveled to Colorado or any part of the United States west of New York, where the Jewish conductor moved to escape the antisemitism of Europe in the early 20th century, eventually directing the New York Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic for several years before his death in 1911.
But it would be a young conductor an entire generation later, Robert Olson, who brought Mahler to the Centennial State. More than 50 years after Mahler’s death, Olson had traveled to Austria on a Fulbright scholarship, where he happened to hear Mahler’s Fifth Symphony played during the funeral procession of the Austrian president. The memorable march stuck with Olson as he traveled back stateside to take a position at the College of Music at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The inspiration from Mahler’s music would later revisit him while spending time at Lake Dillon in Summit County, as Olson sat and stared across at the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains, struck by the landscape that he realized was quite like the lakeside Alps where Mahler composed his symphonies. The land called for Mahler, and Olson responded, creating an annual tradition that would play at least one Mahler Symphony for the mountains to hear.
While Olson may have brought Mahler into the state, there is something about Mahler’s transcendent sound that keeps him here since. “I just felt a real powerful connection to the music and the personality behind it and the emotional intensity—its breadth, its ambition,” says Kenneth Woods, the artistic director and conductor of MahlerFest. “When artists have the courage to create freely and honestly, I feel like that enables them to create work that’s not so pinned in by the constraints of their own era.”
Specifically, Woods explains, “he [was] quite courageous about bringing in these threads of Eastern European folk music, klezmer music, [to his work].” Mahler’s use of popular music was quite striking against an antisemitic establishment at the time that belittled common music as “banal” or “trite.” The festival hopes to continue to celebrate and highlight Mahler’s roots and contemporaries. “Mahler inspired and emboldened a whole generation of young Jewish composers,” Woods says, “[whose] music was lost and forgotten [as a result of] the Holocaust.” They are committed to bringing previously forgotten composers like Hans Gál and Erwin Schulhoff out of the woodwork. (Gál’s Fouth Symphony will have its U.S. premiere at this year’s MahlerFest).
MahlerFest XXXVI—dubbed Rise Again after the closing chant of the choir in Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Rise again! You shall rise again!”—will take place across various Boulder venues including CU Macky Auditorium Concert Hall and Mountain View United Methodist Church, with concert tickets ranging from $30 to $70 depending on the event, or $5 for student tickets. And while the concerts are ticketed, almost everything else at the festival is free, including a daylong Symposium on Saturday, May 20, instrument masterclasses, open rehearsals, and more, as Woods and Hecht emphasize that they hope to make the festival accessible so as many people as possible can experience it.
“I wasn’t a Mahler fanatic until I was,” Woods laughs. “To anyone who is reading this article, come along, no prior knowledge required. Explore, and it can lead you in so many wonderful directions. Just have an open mind!”