BPO Returns to Fateful Symphony

Nearly two decades ago, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s critically acclaimed recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 skyrocketed the orchestra to international fame and even inspired renowned Mahler reviewer Tony Duggan to say that the infamous hammer blows at the end of the piece were the best he had ever heard. Nineteen years later, the symphony will once more be brought to life under the baton of BPO conductor Benjamin Zander, this time at Sanders Theatre on Feb. 21 and Feb. 24.

For its upcoming concerts, the BPO will use a timpani crate and a plumber’s pipe to create the three terrifying hammer blows that occur towards the end of the piece. These blows represent three premonitions or “great blows of fate” that Mahler had, according to legend, foreseen: the loss of his job, the death of his daughter (who passed away at age four), and the discovery of the heart condition that ultimately caused his death. While most conductors, including Mahler himself, would excise the third blow from his performances because they considered playing it to be a bad omen, Zander plans to include it in the BPO’s performance. “Now that [Mahler’s] gone, I don’t have to be concerned about it,” he says. “I’m not afraid.”

The conductor, who considers the dark and dramatic Mahler 6 to be one of the greatest pieces ever composed, looks forward not only to revisiting the piece for himself but also to introducing the symphony to a new generation of listeners. In pursuit of this goal, he will be giving a lecture on the piece before the Sunday performance. “We cannot expect people to be trained in music and understand complicated, long pieces without a little help. I make it my job to explain each piece, since audiences need to be brought into the experience,” Zander says. “The audience has to bring all of their experiences of their own life to the listening…. This could really be a life-changing experience for some.”

Understandably, when the BPO announced that it would again perform the very piece that put it on the map, much of the Boston musical community began to buzz with excitement and curiosity. Despite his experience with the piece, Zander feels the weight of this recognition and of the piece itself. “I’m a little scared of the piece,” Zander says. “I’m scared of the emotional intensity and physical effort. I’m in awe of it.” He estimates that over 2,000 tickets have already been sold for the three performances, but he still hopes that more Harvard students will attend the concert and lecture. “People come to Harvard for extraordinary experiences,” Zander says. “This is one of them.”

—Staff writer Connie Yan can be reached at


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