Bucalo discovered music "like a lot of kids in the fifth grade band. I was supposed to play the clarinet, but they ran out." Though he occasionally subs in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the North Carolina Symphony, Bucalo has spent most of his career performing in orchestras in New Orleans.
"I'm not really a native," he admits. "I'm originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, but I've been here since 1977, so I guess I qualify." He joined the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra in 1977, survived the 1991 crash and shake-up that resulted in the birth of the musician-run Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra later that year, and now serves as the orchestra's president and second-chair trumpet player.
At PJ's, Bucalo, accompanied by his dog Mercedes, sits at a patio table overflowing with records and liner notes for a kind of primer on Gustav Mahler, his third symphony and the immense challenge of performing it in anticipation of the LPO's season-closing performance of the piece. Between bites, he relates that he's played every other Mahler symphony but this one in performance. "I am looking forward to this and so are my colleagues," he says, especially since a performance of the Mahler Second in 2001 was "such a glorious experience."
In talking about the Mahler Third, written by the Bohemian-born composer at an Austrian summer retreat in 1895-96, Bucalo is attracted by Mahler's ambition. "It's grandiosity beyond anything you could possibly imagine. What Mahler was trying to depict was creation from start to finish. You know, primordial nothingness, gas, the world coming together, microbes, invertebrates, vertebrates, plants, people, death, transcendence, heaven. I mean, it's everything, so to speak.
"So he's trying to describe creation, which is not exactly Britney Spears, with all due respect to the Spears family in Kentwood."
The grandiosity, Bucalo says, is reflected in the sheer number and variety of instrumentation in the score. There's a double horn section: eight French horn parts instead of the usual four. There are two piccolo parts, an E-flat clarinet, and extra string and brass players. In addition, the symphony calls for a voice soloist, full chorus and boys choir, roles filled in this performance by alto Claudine Carlson, the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans and the St. Louis Cathedral Boys Choir.
"The stage is going to be very crowded," says Bucalo.
The Mahler Third is also grandiose in its length. Mahler's works are notorious for being long-winded, and his third symphony is the longest of them. Bucalo relates that he and other LPO musicians have been practicing the piece privately for the past month to build endurance. "Because it's not only difficult to play, for brass players it's very physically taxing," says Bucalo. "So you have to be in shape."
The symphony's first movement is about 35 minutes long, longer than the entire length of most Mozart symphonies.
"The first movement is very large," says Bucalo. "It's the largest movement, and it's got the most instrumentation. The vast first movement was to represent the summoning of nature out of nonexistence by the god Pan. So you can imagine horns and trumpets, and he relies very heavily on trombones. Mahler believed that trombones had this earthy, deep, gargantuan kind of sound and symbolism about things."
Bucalo urges listeners to watch for the trombone features: "There's a huge trombone solo that goes throughout the entire [first] movement played by Greg Miller, who's been here for 28 years."
Another solo the audience should listen for is in the third movement, which Mahler wrote for a posthorn, a valve-less brass instrument used in past centuries by horse and carriage guides. Orchestras employ a variety of ways to mimic the sound, from small trumpets to flugelhorns to contemporary trumpets played with flugelhorn mouthpieces. "(Principal trumpet player) Vance Woolf's going to play this on flugelhorn. He's a very, very fine trumpeter from New Zealand. This is his third year in the orchestra, so he's looking forward to that." Bucalo pauses. "Or maybe not," he laughs.
The performances mark the end of conductor Klauspeter Seibel's tenure as music director. He will return next year as principal guest conductor while the orchestra searches for new leadership. "It's kind of a sentimental moment for all of us," says Bucalo. "There's going to be a lot of emotions surrounding that aspect as well." Despite the goodbye, Bucalo says the Mahler program is the ultimate send-off for a man who's been a major part of the organization's success. "This is a rare opportunity for New Orleanians to hear a work like this live, and I really hope they come out to hear it just because it's such a rare event. ... Mahler Three is one of the great neo-romantic symphonies, and we are getting pumped to play it."