Colorado MahlerFest founder Robert Olson prepares for final bow

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Photo: Gustav Mahler horizontal crop
Composer Gustav Mahler in 1909

Conductor Robert Olson founded Colorado MahlerFest on a shoestring budget in 1987. The annual tribute to Austrian composer Gustav Mahler grew over the ensuing 28 years, drawing volunteer musicians from around the world.

This weekend, when Olson takes the podium to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, it will be his last time.

In his first year, Olson had to even man the stage lights, but performances grew more ambitious over the years. He crammed more than 400 musicians into Boulder’s Macky Auditorium for a performance of Symphony No. 8. And he conducted a reconstruction of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10.

His efforts won a gold medal in 2005 from the Gustav Mahler Society of Vienna. The only other American to receive the award was the legendary Leonard Bernstein.

Colorado MahlerFest’s board is expected to announce plans for the festival to continue under a new conductor soon. Olson, who also conducts the Longmont Symphony, spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Olson on how an visit to Dillon Reservoir in Summit County inspired him to create a Mahler festival

Photo: Colorado MahlerFest's Robert Olson talks with Ryan Warner"I was reading this Mahler biography, and what better place to read a Mahler biography, since his favorite spot in the whole world was the Austrian Alps. … It was just so inspiring to me to be at that location at that time, and reading about a composer whose music I felt an incredible connection with."

On conducting Symphony No. 8 with more than 400 musicians

"We had to build a gigantic ladder up to my podium, because there’s orchestra behind me as well in that symphony. … I got up there and I was shaking so badly. I felt like I was not going to be able to control myself. Standing that high up in an auditorium just is not my normal place. And then all of a sudden I’m looking around and, oh my God, there’s people everywhere that I’m supposed to be conducting -- behind me, in front of me, on my sides, down below. There’s actually an angel in the piece, so up above. It was just an out-of-body experience for 23 minutes, which is as long as the first part lasts."

On the volunteer musicians who come from overseas to play at MahlerFest

"There’s just this camaraderie that exists amongst 100 people, every one of whom are there on that stage because they want to be. Even with the Berlin Philharmonic, and let’s say Leonard Bernstein was conducting, there’s got to be a handful of people who want to be home watching the soccer game. So it’s a Valhalla experience for me."