Northwest Mahler Festival performs Mahler's "Tragic" Symphony — complete with its "three blows of fate" — at Seattle's Meany Hall July 19. Darko Butorac conducts.

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“Mahler’s symphonies are like life,” says Darko Butorac, guest conductor of the Northwest Mahler Festival’s concert at Meany Hall on Sunday. “But his Sixth Symphony is the one that doesn’t redeem itself.”

For 15 years, the festival has brought together professional (including members of Seattle Symphony Orchestra), amateur and student talent to perform all nine of Gustav Mahler’s finished symphonies, as well as other works for large orchestra. The organization’s annual concerts are grand affairs, typically finding more than 100 instrumentalists on stage to accommodate the scope of Mahler’s late-Romantic works.

This year’s Mahler bill showcases his Symphony No. 6 in A minor, often referred to as the “Tragic” symphony.

“It does have a hopeless feeling,” says Butorac. “It is about hard experiences, and it makes us look at what it is like to be in the middle of tragedy. From an orchestral point-of-view, it is also one of the most challenging of his symphonies. Long, exhausting and very dense.”

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Written during Mahler’s maturity as a composer, the Sixth captures a profound agony in the last of its four movements. The finale is noted for its use of a hammer striking what Mahler called “three blows of fate.”

Those percussive strikes were later associated by his wife, Alma, with a trio of calamities: the death of their eldest daughter, Mahler’s forced resignation from the Vienna Opera and his diagnosis of a heart condition that eventually killed him.

“Mahler sought answers to metaphysical questions through his symphonies,” says Eric Hanson, a Seattle Pacific University professor and author of “Mahler and the Will.” “But the Sixth took him down dark paths where he didn’t want to go. It’s about death.”

Hanson, a board member and occasional conductor for the Northwest Mahler Festival, says one key to the Sixth is in recognizing something missing.

“It’s the only Mahler symphony where a certain melodic configuration doesn’t appear,” he says. That figure represents Mahler’s embrace of philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer’s “life-will motive” — i.e., the striving power of will, which chases desire and causes suffering, but is nevertheless the human life force.

The absence of that musical reference to the will, says Hanson, captures Mahler saying “no” to existence at that time. On the other hand, Mahler also believed in Schopenhauer’s contention that suffering is mitigated by art — especially music.

The bill on Sunday also includes “Siegfried’s Funeral March” from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” and Richard Strauss’ “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salomé.”

Butorac, music director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, says conducting musicians who are at varying skill levels is a task with its own rewards.

“You have to keep the professionals engaged, and you also have to get the amateurs up to speed,” he says. “It’s all about shared passion and having a great time.”

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