I hate Mahler. I hate the too-serious, death-obsessed, over-orchestrated pomposity of it. I hate the shrill strings and brassy fanfares. Most of all I hate the over-sharing, heart-on-sleeve self-indulgence.

Almost to a person, though, musicians love the works of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Why?

"He expanded the potential of brass instruments," says NZ Symphony Orchestra principal bass trombonist – and Mahler devotee – Shannon Pittaway, who performs the composer's immense Symphony No.2, Resurrection, this week. "He wrote in a virtuosic way that was challenging and exciting to me as a young brass player."

Pittaway didn't hear Mahler until university: "In my first class at the Victorian College of the Arts, they started at the beginning of Mahler's first symphony. It's such a vivid soundscape that it made me realise there was something I needed to discover, and a huge area of music I had to understand."


"I can imagine Mahler would be fabulous to play," says composer Victoria Kelly, whose relationship with Mahler is, well, let's call it complicated. "Everything you'd hope to feel when you're performing a piece of music you would feel when playing Mahler; you'd go through the whole spectrum of human emotion and get to revel in it and swim in it."

Kelly was switched on to Mahler through the music of spiky Russian composer Alfred Schnittke: "My mum listened to Mahler, and I never got it, but when I discovered that Schnittke, someone I idolised as a musician, loved Mahler, I thought I must be missing something and decided to look back."

Most people dipping a first toe into Mahler – and less versed in the Soviet modernists than Kelly – would be better served by approaching the music from a different direction. Dr Graeme Downes, who is both New Zealand's leading Mahler expert and the singer-songwriter for legendary Dunedin band The Verlaines, recommends starting with the first symphony and working forward. It's not what he did.

"I was 14 and got the first symphony out of the library and fell in love immediately," Downes says. "I thought he must have got really good by the time he wrote the ninth, so I borrowed that next. A huge mistake. My reaction was pretty much the same as yours: this is self-indulgent twaddle. So I'd suggest going through the symphonies numerically. It takes you on a journey, and you can adjust to Mahler's language as it changes."

Any other advice?

"There are things you have to let go of," Downes says. "Like the idea music's supposed to be edifying or entertaining. Mahler's music is deliberately discomfiting. Perhaps it comes down to what you're prepared to let music do to you. I believe increasingly that his music is prophetic. You can read it on one level as being self-indulgent, but on another level he's speaking for all of humanity, just as Beethoven was in the ninth symphony."

It's this side of Mahler that troubles Victoria Kelly: "There's sometimes something in his music that I find overblown and egotistical, and incredibly manipulative."

Manipulative how?


"It's like someone using emotive language to trigger you into feeling something you might otherwise not feel. You're tumbling along almost against your will and that makes me feel unpleasant."

Sometimes, though, the feelings are real.

"I've also had some profound experiences with Mahler," Kelly says. "When my mother was dying we went to see the Resurrection symphony together. Experiencing that with someone who was only months from death changed everything for me. I remember being there with this person who meant more to me than anything in the world, and knowing that as she heard the music she was thinking about what it meant. And through her I was also thinking about it, trying to imagine it from her perspective while also feeling it through my own."

Kelly is clearly moved as she recounts her story, but does she not feel manipulated into her reaction, as if, to use her words, she's tumbling along against her will?

"I can't separate the music from that experience," she says. "If I listened to the symphony in isolation I would probably find it less meaningful, but things came together in that moment, and the music is written in a way that if you're in that situation, it's everything. Maybe that's what people need from it."


What: NZSO - Resurrection
Where and When: Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Friday November 22; Auckland Town Hall, Saturday November 23