Sunday, March 12, 2006

CONCERT REVIEW: Gustav Mahler's Resurrection Symphony

Blogger William O'Hara of Without Heart, Don't Sing posted this account of his Saturday night experience:
Last night, I went to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with my family. They were performing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, the "Resurrection" Symphony. Ethan recommended it to Glee Club and Chorale by email, saying it's one of his favorite pieces of music. Since I'm home for Spring Break, I dragged my family along. Several people must have taken his advice, since I ran into two other Glee Clubbers, along with Ethan himself, and Dr. Bausano, Miami's other choir professor. Before tonight, I wasn't familiar with Mahler at all, but tonight has piqued my interest. Dr. Denny Roberts, the advisor to Stelliott (my dorm), is also a fan of Mahler. Maybe he and Ethan are on to something.

This five movement, late-Romantic symphony clocks in at over an hour and twenty minutes, with no intermission. They turned out to be some of the most riveting eighty minutes of my life. Paavo Jarvi conducted, and the symphony was excellently paced. The orchestra completely filled the stage, and with the 120+ member May Festival Chorus sat on risers behind them. The symphony wavers drastically between moods.

The symphony opens with an intense, staccato riff in the cellos and basses. The winds stated a tentative, floating melody. The movement builds up and releases intensity, ebbs and flows. One of my favorite moments is when the cellos and basses use "col legno" (with the wood), a technique where they hit the strings with the back of the bow, rather than bowing. It creates a cool percussive effect, which blended with the rest of the orchestra to give the passage a sinister build-up.

The second movement was waltz-like. It had a theme that John Williams must have listened to around the time he was composing the score for Harry Potter...It ended beautifully, but led suddenly into the aggressive third movement. I'll get to the fourth and fifth later...

I think my favorite part of the symphony was the variety of moods expressed. At the end of the development in the first movement, the orchestra cuts out except for one violin holding out its note. The movement seemed to be over, but suddenly, with a violent gesture from Paavo, the cellos jumped in with the opening motive again. The performance was simply full of moments like that. It's so well written. And it was excellently conducted. There were at least a half dozen moments when I caught myself holding my breath at the end of quiet passages.

The name of the symphony refers to the text. One of the soloists sings in the fourth movement, and the chorus and second soloist enter in the fifth and final movement. The fourth movement was simple and songlike. After the darker third movement ended, the mezzo soprano soloist entered with a simple melody. The trumpets played behind her for a while, before the strings took over. It was simply GORGEOUS. The mezzo was covered up by the orchestra at some points, but that may just have been because we were sitting in the top balcony (center balcony! We had AMAZING seats from a viewer's perspective...) as opposed to the front of the orchestra seats, like we were last time I heard a soloist with the CSO...

Excerpts from the mezzo's text--

"Man lies in greatest need!
Man lies in greatest pain!
Rather would I be in Heaven!
I am from God and will return to God!
The dear God will give me a small light,
Will light my way unto eternal blessed life!"

The fifth movement began with a triumphant theme, one of the first major-key tonalities in the whole work. The chorus remained seated as they sang "You will rise again, my dust, after a short rest!" The soloists came back in, before the chorus finally rose on the lines "Stop trembling! Prepare yourself! Prepare yourself to live!" They finish with triumphant music, hitting the loudest chord of the entire piece at the end of the lines "I shall die, in order to live! You will rise again, my heart, in a moment! The things for which you have beaten will carry you to God!"

I loved the way the symphony built up -- that's my most obvious interpretation. It swung between moods, perhaps ambivalent about death. Mahler refers to the first movement as a funeral march, which it seems like it could be to me. It seems almost to represent death approaching. The second movement is a relief from the intensity and foreboding of the opening section. The third movement didn't stick out as much to me. It began darkly, without as much sudden variation as the first movement had. Mahler describes it as a cry of disgust. The fourth, however, was like a sudden ray of sunshine. It was the most beautiful music yet. Mahler wrote the text himself, and the music fits itself beautifully. The mezzo soloist, whose text expresses a desire to leave this world and enter heaven, blends into a heavenly fanfare. Then the music recedes again, before finally exhaulting in its final fanfare. In the end, the name "Resurrection" finally comes into play, since the music has gone full circle. Through the end of life, through death, and through rebirth.

posted by William O'Hara at 12:57 AM

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