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BSO's Mahler and Freud: A Q&A with Didi Balle

Photo: Elisa Watson, License: N/A

Elisa Watson


Maestra Marin Alsop and the BSO perform Analyze This: Mahler and Freud

Nov. 6 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

For more information, visit the BSO web site.

In 1910, Gustav Mahler was having a rough go of it. The then-50-year-old Austrian composer was no longer the director of the Vienna Court Opera (now the Wiener Staatsoper), having resigned from his celebrated post, for which he converted from Judaism to Catholicism, in 1907, after a decade of work there. During that time, he also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for a brief spell, though his tenure was heavily criticized by the Viennese press. He also composed some of his most emotionally intense symphonies, such as his Symphony No 5., the devastating No. 6, and the grand No. 8. And back in 1901, he had met Alma Schindler, whom he'd later marry; illness claimed one of their two daughters by 1907. That same year he discovered he had a life-threatening heart condition. And come 1910, he discovered Alma was having an affair with eventual Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius.

So Mahler sought advice from an Austrian neurologist whose theories about the mind had only started to gain esteem: Dr. Sigmund Freud. And in August 1910, Mahler met Freud in Leiden, Holland, where they talked during a four-hour perambulation around town.

Exactly what they talked about is only known secondhand. Alma recalled the meeting in interviews after Mahler's 1911 death; Freud told psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte about it in 1925 and wrote about it to his student Theodor Reik (see: Donald Mitchell's "Mahler and Freud" pdf).

Now Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra imagine what that encounter might have been like with Analyze This: Mahler and Freud at the Strathmore Nov. 5 and at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Nov. 6. Another Symphonic Stage Show collaboration between Alsop, the BSO, and writer/director/editor Didi Balle, the same creative team behind 2008's CSI: Beethoven, Analyze This combines narrative theater with music for a multimedia examination of Mahler's life and music, and the relationship between the two. City Paper spoke to writer and stage director Balle by phone about the origins this hybrid program.

City Paper: I'm anecdotally familiar with the 1910 meeting between Mahler and Freud. What attracted you to this encounter and made you want to turn it into a symphonic stage show?
Didi Balle: Well, you know, Marin's a collaborator of mine, and we've done shows for a number of years, and when we did CSI: Beethoven the last time, I think we went out after and she said, "You know, Mahler and Freud had this meeting in 1910. Do you want to do something with it?" I said sure.

So that was the beginning of it. I went and researched in all kinds of books, books, books, and then I listened to music. And then I turned it into a symphonic play—it's such a perfect, natural lens from which to tell the story of Mahler's life. This meeting [between Mahler and Freud] offers a wonderful opportunity to weave key points of his life through this actual real-life session. It's all dramatized, and with excerpts of his music that are relevant to the story. And I have Marin analyzing the music, Freud analyzing his life, and Alma actually appears in his life as well. She appears as a constant presence in Mahler's mind and he's so distraught about what's happened—you know, when you have a relationship or marriage that's on the rocks, you obsess about that person.

CP: So how do you prepare for a piece like this? I mean, I imagine this piece needing to be extremely well informed about Mahler's music and his personal life.
DB: Well, I live on the West Coast now, and as I did with CSI: Beethoven, I like to go down to Powell's Books. It's one of the great bookstores, and I go to the Mahler section and there I buy, like, 20 books. Some of them are old, some of them are new—and I knew about some of the definitive ones. And I just hunt and gather. I read these books, not necessarily cover to cover. And I read about Alma and I read about Freud. I read Bruno Bettelheim [Austrian-American psychologist who did extensive work on Freud and psychoanalysis], I read about Vienna, I read about the turn of the century—I read to try to get a feeling for time, what their lives are, who they are, the musical standpoint, and then I start dreaming. I start imagining.

And then I go to the music. And I don't start writing the character's voice yet, I listen to the music over and over and over, and then I can start to hear dialogue and monologues. I write them all down, and I don't worry necessarily about the structure yet. I just allow the thoughts to start running. And then I arduously go back and shape it, creating outlines and structures and things like that. That's the hard part.

CP: Did you and Marin Alsop talk about specific Mahler works that would be included? Or did you have to figure that out in relation to the narrative itself?
DB: I always ask Marin first, "What music do you want and what is it that's important to you about it?" I always ask her as a first lens. And in this case she mentioned a number of [pieces] that were important to her, so I focused on those. But—and I don't know if this is interesting or not—but because of the economic climate we're in, we had to be very careful in terms of what excerpts were taken because of extra players and not being able to bring them in. It didn't limit the program because, you know, as Bob Fosse once said, "Limitation creates style." It was just kind of an interesting thing. It did create a sense of what symphonies could be looked at and it sort of narrowed the playing field in some regard. And then in terms of the Lieder [songs], I really wanted to end with Alma singing one of the songs—you know, out of this discussion [with Freud], Mahler ended up publishing five of Alma's Lieder. So I thought it would be appropriate that at the end of the program, Alma sings one of those songs.

I broke it up into analysis pods—it's because I work on a Mac, so everything's a pod. So analysis pod one is childhood and Beethoven, analysis pod two is Alma courtship and marriage, analysis pod three is death, and analysis pod four is the way forward. So it's really interesting to have so much wonderful source material to go to as inspiration.

CP: From a stage directing standpoint, and this is just me musing out loud: How much can you do given there's going to be, you know, a full orchestra onstage?
DB: That's a really good point. Usually we have sort of like a bowling alley to perform in—I'm being funny. We have a long rectangular space. We had that for CSI: Beethoven and it worked well because on one side was the doctors and Beethoven had the whole stage left. Well, I don't know how this has happened, but it's amazing—they are pushing back the orchestra, and I just hope there's not a riot. We're actually going to have more room. And we don't mind if sometimes a cello bow hits an actor in the back. That's not a bad thing because it prods them onto a new thought. But we're going to have different playing areas. So we have a cafè at stage right, in the center we have a bench that's sort of multifunctional, the whole front lip of the proscenium is the beach scene, and then we have a park. And then we've got this great dimension of a 15-by-20 [foot] screen with A/V images. So you have visual imagery that's a combination of images from the UPenn archives that houses the Alma Mahler-Werfel collection of photographs, so that there are these amazing photos of their little daughters and things people haven't seen before. So, you're right, it's very limited, but it's so much more than what's usually there anyway.

CP: And I'm just curious: How much fun is a project like this to conceive and work on? Because it sounds like a blast.
DB: It is fun. It's this great journey. I'm always thinking of the audience when I'm working and writing—what are they seeing? What are they experiencing? So when the time comes and the audience is finally there, it's very exciting.

Maestra Marin Alsop and the BSO perform Analyze This: Mahler and Freud Nov. 6 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. For more information, visit the BSO web site.

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