George Hanson is dashing, down to earth, impeccable—articulate and genuine even when answering questions of excruciating ambiguity. And here's how much cooler he is than you: He's been not only Leonard Bernstein's assistant, but also orchestra conductor for R.E.M.'s "Automatic for the People."
Hanson announced in 2011 that the TSO's 2014-15 season would be his last as musical director and conductor, but he's giving us a spectacularly lavish farewell gift, never before performed in Tucson. It's Gustav Mahler's rarely played, 90-plus minute, Symphony No. 3. Price tag: $42,000 more than any regular TSO offering.
It's like summer, breezy and organic, like eagles floating on a zephyr in the sun (Mahler inspires hyperbole). Soon enough, it's sweeping! Majestic! Inexorable, like life itself. The finale is love triumphant, vast and immutable, from a whispery soft opening to an apogee of extravagant, Olympian joy, finishing, slight and sweet, with a singular flute and a tiny violin trill. If you haven't heard it, this probably sounds like an acid trip, and you can't begin to imagine how good it feels. Think of standing on a high peak at sunrise. "It is one of those extraordinary experiences," Hanson says, "that as beautiful as it is, you can't just turn it on. You have to be inside it.
"It's a much bigger orchestra," he says. "Instead of two oboists or even three, there are four required. Five clarinets, four bassoons, so that's already several thousand dollars' worth of extra musicians, and then you have extra percussion. You have eight horns instead of four. You've got four trumpets instead of three, four trombones instead of three. You've got two tubas, two harps, and then you have a chorus, and then you have a mezzo-soprano (for TSO, it's Emily Marvosh) and that soprano has to be really good."
It's possible all that wouldn't even fit on the TCC's Music Hall stage, but no matter. For sort of a 19th Century "Sensurround" effect, Mahler specified the horns and the chorus were to be up in the balcony. The Tucson Boys Chorus and the women of the TSO Chorus will be onstage, but otherwise TSO's presentation might not disappoint him.
Authentically interpreting a composer's intent is always the objective of what Hanson refers to as "conductors of good will." Mahler may have been the first to see that as a potential problem. Hanson says he was anyway the first to be controlling enough to exhaustively annotate his scores. His work is in remarkably good hands with Hanson, who, although American, speaks fluent German and is at home, literally, in German culture. He'd already won an international reputation for conducting Mahler's works by the time he joined the TSO in 1996.
With some prodding, the modest maestro admits "With my orchestra in Germany (the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra and Opera), we did a complete cycle of the symphonies during my seven years there...and they became, you know, people would travel to hear them from other places.
"The more you understand the composer, I suppose, the more you can connect with him in some way, the better that gets." He has more connections with Mahler than most, having seen his career surge when, at 28, he won first prize at the Budapest International Conducting Competition. Budapest was also influential in Mahler's life, if not in such a good way, when his first directorship was with the Royal Hungarian Opera there. Now the city fétes him with an annual Mahler festival.
The rest of Hanson's career, even to the present, is like a litany of all the places Mahler worked. They went to the same school in Vienna. Hanson was assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic where Mahler had been music director. Hanson and his family have an apartment now in Leipzig where Mahler worked for the venerable Leipzig Opera.
For all that, Hanson says he's gotten more into the sense of Mahler's music by listening to German musicians play it. "Now, Mahler is considered part of the vernacular," he says. "I will listen to the way they play it naturally, and I'll make suggestions, but gradually my orchestra there developed a way of approaching all the German repertoire. Then I get on an airplane and I fly here and I have to figure out, how can I explain that to an American orchestra who plays completely differently?
"It works exactly the other way, sure, because as an American you never have to explain to an American orchestra how to swing." He then swings right into a Sinatra-like scat. "You have to explain that to a German orchestra, and they might not get it."
Hanson says he loves Tucson, but 20 years are enough. He's already moved his family to Leipzig. He wants to take advantage of worldwide opportunities to be a guest conductor. He seems energized by the idea of conducting in Africa and in other places he hasn't seen.
What animates him most, though, is his hoped-for legacy. It's a passionate case, seasoned and cured by almost 20 years of advancing it, for Tucson businesses to seize their remarkable arts community with both arms and run with it. He advocates for more financial support, of course, but with a leveraged quid pro quo. "'If we get some more support from you we could do some more special projects. How could they benefit you?' This is for me the total key," he says. He tells of Delta Airlines' success sponsoring a tour of major European cities for the Atlanta Symphony. Delta executives told him they got $1.5 million in PR on an investment of $250,000, mostly in kind, because they invited executives of major corporations to each concert and a reception.
Closer to home, he tells of a very large Tucson business wanting to recruit an executive from Europe, but his wife required that we have a symphony. Hanson supplied the TSO's one recording, which reached number 2 on the USA classical charts, (in Wuppertal his orchestra produced one each year to critical acclaim), and the family was persuaded.
Hanson expects to return to TSO next January as a guest conductor. Still, Mahler's 3rd is likely to be a three-hanky affair, especially as the finale opens. Hanson sings the background the orchestra lays in place. "Then the cello part comes in," he says, and he sings what everyone will now recognize as the opening notes of a more familiar melody, "I'll be Seeing You."