Mahler 2, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection”


Strathmore Hall, Bethesda, MD

Sept. 17, 2011 

review by Jason McCool for PinkLine Project

I’m told that for the most part, doctors cured malaria years ago, but to this date there is no known cure for Mahleria. I’ve been afflicted since roughly 1994 (shameless plug), so I understand firsthand the pains and pleasures that come along with being a devotee of the truly epic, dramatic music written by this late 19th century Bohemian.

If such a thing is possible in the classical music world, Mahler seems to be trending amongst younger audiences hungry for rich, non-commercial and spiritually uplifting sonic pleasure. While his music was for the most part shunned during his lifetime, it’s recently become a go-to for orchestras looking for a guaranteed full house. This symphony, subtitled “Resurrection,” is also about as close as one could get to an overtly “religious” program without actually being religious. Even as Mahler’s text selections skew toward a renunciation of religious dogma, it has been claimed as both “Jewish” (including by Kafka’s assistant Max Brod) and “Catholic” (by Pope John Paul II). Marxist critic Theodor Adorno weighed in on what he saw as the atheism of the work, and Freudians (including Freud himself!) have a field day trying to decode Mahler’s true intentions. In the public arena, Mahler’s music is commonly used to commemorate large-scale grieving; Leonard Bernstein, who almost single-handedly popularized Mahler’s music to American audiences during the 1960s, conducted the 2nd Symphony in honor of JFK, and the famous Adagietto from the 5th Symphony at RFK’s funeral.

To this end, two great East Coast orchestras programmed Mahler’s 2nd Symphony over the week of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks: a free concert for New York City offered by the New York Philharmonic (NYPO), once led by Mahler himself, and the Baltimore Symphony, led by Mahler specialist Marin Alsop, who studied under Bernstein. I attended performances of both and received both individually, but will try to focus on the magnificent BSO performance here. (I’ll neither confirm nor deny a rumor that the pre-concert lecture may have been was improvised out of thin air by yours truly.)

After opening the evening with a piece written by a local composer (“The Star Spangled Banner,” natch), Alsop ignited the first movement with a fresh, vibrant, borderline reckless energy, perfect and essential for the journey this piece takes audiences on. The BSO plays to the sonic strengths of Strathmore Hall (clarity, presence), and Alsop coaxed lovely colors out of Mahler’s obsessively specific dynamic markings. Composer Morton Feldman once advised to aspiring students “when it comes to orchestration, think of yourself as a millionaire!” and he may have been referencing a “rich” historical tradition which includes master orchestrators like Mahler, Debussy, and Ravel.

Mahler’s vertical chords are made of almost rickety individual sonorities which blend together into endless variations of tonal color, and the pinpoint specificity of these shadings (including entrances, intonation, and dynamics) is what stuck out most for me about this performance. (In this sense, Mahler presages modern electronica, obsessed with the minute specificity of sound.) Also, Mahler’s stark contrasts: one minute you’re lounging about in a field, placid and bucolic, the next you’re rocked by furious torrents of sound, drums crashing and brass swooping like the Superman soundtrack on speed. Mahler 2 is about as dramatic and demanding as orchestral music gets, which is pretty damn dramatic, and it barely lets you pause to catch your breath. I’ll admit that the NYPO performance had a keener sense of emotionally charged air, and perhaps felt overall more “dramatic” than this concert – the NYPO audience spontaneously bursted into well-deserved applause during a searing climax halfway through the first movement – though this should probably be attributed to the release of nervous energy on the evening before 9/11/11, in front of an assembled crowd of New Yorkers perhaps less familiar with the piece. That said, I cannot imagine the existence of an un-dramatic performance of this music.

The second movement, almost Haydn-esque in its pastoral comfort, provided yet more contrast to the sturm und drang of the first, but Alsop didn’t stay there long, pushing the BSO headlong into more ominous waters. The perfectly shaped violin section phrasing in this movement could have come only from hours of rehearsal and deep trust; indeed, one of the reasons orchestras are such beautiful creatures is the model of democracy which they exemplify: all participants maintain an essential, individual voice yet contribute to a common goal much greater than the sum of its parts. Mahler’s deep sense of humor traveled amongst the BSO musicians themselves, as a few string players smiled through a cheeky pizzicato section which places audiences inside a Viennese tavern. It’s one of the hallmarks of Mahler’s writing that we’re never quite sure whether we’re in a high-class concert hall or a dive bar, ca. 1890!

Movement III, In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (“With quietly flowing movement”), opens with forceful timpani slamming awake any unlucky sleepers – this music is not for the faint of heart! – and continues with a waltz (or landler) typical of Mahler’s Jewish roots, winding through the clarinet. Each instrument is so brutally exposed in this music, and the upper woodwinds made a few slightly futzy entrances. (Mahler conductor Benjamin Zander reports that a 3rd flute player once told him after playing a Mahler symphony that she felt like she had the most important part in the orchestra!) The astute listener will recognize Mahler recycling his own earlier musical material, as the basses underlay the earlier clarinet theme.

The “Urlicht” movement presents one of the great sonic surprises in all of Mahler’s musical dramas, and one sensed a physical shift in the audience when contralto Susan Platts intoned “O Röschen rot!” seemingly out of nowhere. (“O red rose!” would have been a reference to heaven understood by audiences of Mahler’s time.) Platts was at a fairly sizable distance from the orchestra, and it’s a testament to her trust of Alsop’s vision that one would never have known the two weren’t standing alongside each other. What’s more, the bold and unusual choice of having both solo singers begin their entrances from a seated position on the upper balcony further accentuated Mahler’s intentions that these gorgeous voices might simply unfold out of unending time and space.

In fact, what I left with from this performance with was a newfound awareness of Gustav Mahler, theater director. Mahler was far more famous in his own time as an opera conductor, and though he never wrote an actual opera (no, the 8th Symphony doesn’t count), his music is imbued with theatrical flair: a 100-piece choir who sits onstage for an hour before singing, a sense of location and narrative gleaned from borrowing various ethnic styles, and most dramatically, an offstage band which plays with our idea of spatial awareness. (In New York, English translations of Mahler’s (and Klopstock’s) text were subtly projected on a small horizontal screen above the orchestra, a nice touch which proved easier than clumsily referring to program notes in a dark hall, especially for audiences unfamiliar with the life-affirming nature of the text.)

The finale of Mahler 2 presents some of the most astonishing music ever set to paper, and if my cheeks are an accurate barometer of success, the BSO more than lived up the task. Opening with dreamy harp chords reminiscent of Debussy, the movement continues with fiendishly high offstage French horn calls (for the most part, spot on) and overwhelmingly warm, gigantic brass chorales building to the heroic ending climax. (Kudos to the lead trumpet player for nailing a high, sustained note which seemed to carry on for minutes!) Another stunning sonic moment ensued when one solo flute player exchanged lines with two offstage brass sections, set off from either side of the stage in stereo surround. I would have enjoyed seeing less of the performers physically leaving their sections and walking behind the orchestra to join offstage groups, however, as in a purely theatrical sense this slightly undercuts the illusion; this wasn’t an issue in New York, as the performers stayed permanently on or off stage.

I heard stunning young Canadian soprano Layla Claire sing this piece at Symphony Hall in Boston last October; orchestras seem to be lining up to hire her to play this “role” because her voice is crystal clear, rich with emotion and longing. (Her headshot ain’t bad for marketing purposes, either.) When the roughly 100-piece choir finally stood for the concluding moments of the piece – “You will rise again, yes, rise again, my heart in an instant! What you have conquered will carry you to God!” – it was impossible to not think of those whom we have lost. Gaurav Gopalan, beloved DC theater director, astrophysicist, and spiritual beacon to so many, was murdered on the street last week by someone who didn’t like the way he dressed, and Gaurav’s soulful presence seared through me during the final 5 minutes of this Mahler 2.

One of the most profound statements about music, nay life, I know of, comes from that great Mahlerian Leonard Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Thanks to each member of the Baltimore Symphony, and to Gustav Mahler, for allowing us a space in which to mourn our tragedies, to celebrate our joys, and to feel a part of a broader human community.