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Mahler hits stride long after his death

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BOULDER, Colo. — Classical musicians sometimes apply what they call the hundred-year rule to composers. Only a century after music is composed, they say, can its quality and value truly be appraised.

By that standard, the works of Gustav Mahler, who died in 1911, should now be reaching their largest audience. Judging by the hundreds of people who converged on Boulder for a Mahler festival recently, his place in the pantheon of musical genius is assured.

Mahler's music is deeply complex and almost unbearably emotional. Its great themes are despair in the face of tragedy, followed by redemption and determination to live on. That message perplexed his contemporaries in Europe and in the United States where he spent his final years conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. Many of them were far removed from the depths of human torment and lived in societies where death was often idealized as something ethereal and even beautiful.

Today, after the 20th century's world wars and mass slaughters, Mahler's music touches many more souls than it did when it was written. Its difficulty also attracts ambitious musicians, and 90 or more arrive here at their own expense each year to play it.

This year's Mahler Festival was the 15th in what has become an annual series. Devotees converge on the University of Colorado campus from many parts of the United States and several foreign countries. They wear Mahler sweat shirts and lapel pins with slogans like "I've got Mahleria."

"You can't find a more elemental expression of the great human emotions, whether you're talking about devilish merriment or abject gloom," said Richard Oldberg, a horn player who spent 30 years with the Chicago Symphony. "He deals with the most profound questions of life, and he does it in a way that encompasses every kind of music from atonal cacophony to the simplest folk melody."

"The fact that we're not being paid means that every one of us is here for an idealistic reason, which in this commercialized business is so rare as to be unique," Oldberg said. "Mahler always said his time would come. Well, it has. This is music for our time, and the events of Sept. 11 make him more contemporary than ever. Mahler is the great prophet of the idea that life involves great pain and suffering, but also that after it all, there is resurrection and triumphant affirmation."

The Mahler boom is not new. His music began reaching a broad public in the 1960s, when it was embraced by several conductors including Leonard Bernstein.

In 1988 the conductor Robert Olson, then based in Boulder, staged the first Mahler Festival here on a budget of $400. The featured musical offering was Mahler's First Symphony. Since then players have performed another of the 10 symphonies each year, and then begun the cycle anew. Many return year after year.