Gustav Mahler's bleak Sixth Symphony (1903-05) has known its share of strange bedfellows -- at its 1947 American premiere by the New York Philharmonic it was paired, at the insistence of the Philharmonic's board, with George Gershwin's Concerto in F -- but few can have been stranger than Jukka Linkola's athletic Trumpet Concerto No.1 (1988), which precedes the symphony on this week's Minnesota Orchestra program.

For the linking of Mahler and Linkola there's a mundane explanation: The concerto is the orchestra's nod to the 36th annual conference of the International Trumpet Guild, which this week has brought more than 1,000 trumpeters to Minneapolis from as far away as Thailand and Australia. Among them is Helsinki-based Jouko Harjanne, who on Thursday made a feast of the concerto, inscribing his name on the list of remarkable Finnish musicians introduced to us by Osmo Vänskä.

On its own terms, Linkola's piece is attractive enough. Eclectic and sometimes swashbuckling, it puts the soloist through his paces and, in its middle movement, explores the trumpet's reflective side. But it has no business sharing the bill with Mahler's thorniest work. Rarely have I been so grateful for a head-clearing, 20-minute intermission.

Talk to an avid Mahlerite about the 75-minute Sixth Symphony (dubbed "Tragic," possibly by Mahler himself) and you're apt to find yourself debating the order of the work's middle movements or the proper number of "hammer-blows" in its apocalyptic, crushing Finale. (The composer reversed himself on both points; Vänskä puts the Scherzo first and omits the third blow.) Yet such things are secondary. The questions the Sixth poses are more existential than editorial: Did Mahler glimpse the calamities that soon would befall him? Did he have a presentiment of 20th-century horrors? Is life really as grim as this music seems to say?

Vänskä's performance, the orchestra stunning in its presence, engaged these questions vividly, capturing all the obsessiveness, eeriness and violence in Mahler's writing. Nothing softened the music's edges; the playing was mordant, its colors stark. The climax of the Andante and the whole of the Finale had a feverish intensity not soon forgotten. And the brass section had a terrific evening.

  • Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.