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Santa Fe orchestra performs Mahler’s debut symphony

Guillermo Figueroa will conduct the Santa Fe Symphony when it performs Mahler’s debut symphony next Sunday.

Guillermo Figueroa will conduct the Santa Fe Symphony when it performs Mahler’s debut symphony next Sunday.

SANTA FE – The careening music of Gustav Mahler perplexed his early audiences accustomed to the work of Beethoven and Brahms. Viennese audiences hissed his first symphony at its 1899 premiere.

The composer inserted Jewish folk melodies, his own tunes and “Frere Jacques” with a spooky funeral march building into a stormy finale. Mahler said he based his music loosely on a novel by the popular writer Jean Paul called “The Titan.” The name stuck.

The Santa Fe Symphony will perform Mahler’s debut symphony along with “Ballet Music from Idomeneo, King of Crete” by Mozart and Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor at 4 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.

“To do something of that magnitude as your first symphony is quite remarkable,” said conductor Guillermo Figueroa, who lives in Albuquerque. “He had no real precedent in terms of the symphonic structure he invented.”

Mahler even added “parody” instrumentations in the slow movement, noting the orchestra should sound like “a Jewish village band.”

“These were things that were not done in symphonies before,” Figueroa said. “It’s very difficult technically. It’s a huge, four-movement structure. But it’s probably by far the most often played of all the symphonies.”

Mozart’s “Ballet Music from Idomeneo, King of Crete” is seldom played but is a Figueroa favorite. Mozart wrote his first mature opera at 24 because he wanted to produce a piece in the French style filled with dancing.

“It’s not a comedy like ‘Figaro’ or ‘Don Giovanni,'” Figueroa said. “At the Paris Ballet, opera always had to have a ballet. It’s absolutely wonderful, brilliant music.”

Guest cellists Dana Winograd and Joel Becktell will perform the Vivaldi concerto.

“They are extraordinary artists,” Figueroa said. “I’ve played with them many times over the last 12 years. It’s a fun piece; it has tons of notes up and down. They’ll probably be trying to outdo each other.”

The cello was an underdog instrument of the Baroque as the viola dominated the strings. Vivaldi was a pioneer in composing more than two dozen concerti for solo cello. The Concerto in G minor remains one of his most sensational works. The bravura opening heralds a bold role for both soloists, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in duet with tricky string crossings.

Figueroa, the former New Mexico Symphony Orchestra music director, is the music director and conductor of the Lynn Philharmonic at the Lynn Conservatory near Boca Raton, Fla.

“It’s like Curtis Institute (in Philadelphia),” he said. “It’s free.”

He also is music director of the Music in the Mountains Festival in Durango, Colo.

His own 3-year-old Albuquerque-based Figueroa Music and Arts Project is on hiatus, he said. “It’s very difficult to raise money in this town.”

Figueroa’s international appearances as guest conductor include the Toronto Symphony, the Iceland Symphony, the Baltic Philharmonic in Poland, Orquesta del Teatro Argentino in Buenos Aires, Xalapa (Mexico) and the Orquestra de Cordoba in Spain. His U.S. appearances have included the symphony orchestras in Detroit, New Jersey, Memphis, Phoenix, Colorado, Berkeley, Calif.; Tucson, Ariz.; Santa Fe, Toledo, Ohio, San Jose, Calif.; the Juilliard Orchestra and the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Figueroa has collaborated with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Placido Domingo, Joshua Bell, James Galway, Midori and Rachel Barton Pine.