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Philharmonic bringing a heavy hitter for Mahler, Schubert

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Guest conductor Grant Cooper will pack his SUV with a homemade, giant hammer when he drives from West Virginia to Albuquerque this week.

Cooper will lead the New Mexico Philharmonic through the hammer blows of fate with Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”) and Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”) at Popejoy Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18.

Grant Cooper

Grant Cooper

The New Zealand-born artistic director of the West Virginia Symphony, Cooper constructed his own wooden hammer and a box —— complete with F holes —— to produce the final, devastating blows required by the finale of Mahler’s masterpiece.

“We know he was never happy with the sound of the hammer,” Cooper said of the composer. Mahler wrote the work in 1903 and 1904. At the time of its 1906 premiere, the percussionist banged on a bass drum.

“He went off the podium and hit it himself and had to laugh because it didn’t sound any better,” Cooper said.

Mahler wanted to create the sound of a tree crashing from the impact. The tree was his metaphor for the hero of the piece.

So Cooper constructed a 180-cubic-foot box from plywood. A 3-foot-long maul used for splitting wood and made of pressure-treated lumber serves as his hammer.

“I’ve cut air holes into it so that it looks like a musical instrument,” he said.

By the time of the French Revolution and Beethoven, music was slowly moving beyond the sound of royalty and the church into a more personal expression. In the past, composers infused their pieces with a redemptive spirit.

“You would struggle, but you would emerge triumphant,” Cooper said. But Mahler knew better. His wife, Alma, later said the composer’s own three blows came from the death of his eldest daughter, his own diagnosis of a fatal heart condition and his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera.

“No matter how hard the hero struggles, he cannot escape the reality of despair,” Cooper said. “You must pull yourself out of tragedy.”

Both the Mahler and the Schubert symphonies feature an A major to A minor chord progression, Cooper said.

“It’s unmistakably a reference,” he said.

No one really knows why Schubert never finished his symphony, although there is plenty of speculation.

“As a young man, Schubert had played in pickup orchestras in Vienna doing Beethoven’s Second Symphony,” Cooper said.

The composer wrote 20 bars of a piano sketch.

“The similarities to Beethoven’s Second are extremely close,” Cooper said. “He was always afraid of accusations of plagiarism.

Maybe “he realized they were so close that he realized he couldn’t complete the Beethoven-like theme,” Cooper said.

“In its own way, it’s also a tragic symphony,” Cooper said, “because he couldn’t finish the piece. It’s the promise of what might have been.”

WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18
WHERE: Popejoy Hall, University of New Mexico campus
HOW MUCH: $22-$75 at or call 925-5626. Tickets are also available at all Albertsons in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe.

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