The Awesome Power of Mahler
by Jeffrey Rossman
The artistic creations of man have often served as depictions of or even substitutes for religion. Music, being the most ephemeral and transparent, evokes unique and personal responses. Add the subtitle "Resurrection" to a symphony of heavenly length with an emotional wallop that gnaws at your soul and you experience a work that is a transforming event. The Second Symphony of Gustav Mahler was given a transcendent performance by the North Carolina Symphony (NCS) under the leadership of Music Director Grant Llewellyn, and those who were not profoundly affected by what they heard just might be alien beings. The weekend of May 12-13 saw the arrival of the promise of "the next great orchestra" with performances of one of the most complex yet accessible works of the orchestral literature that cemented this grand goal. Unfortunately, for some members of the audience (depending on where they were sitting), a huge faux pas by the orchestra's management marred an otherwise memorable event – more on that later.
Despite the obvious Christian connotations of the subtitle "Resurrection," it is of more universal significance to think of this as a rebirth or renewal of one's approach to life. Mahler was obsessed with death by virtue of his personal experience – his young daughter's demise – as well as a generally bleak philosophical outlook on life. For those uninitiated to Mahler, this label of his psyche casts a somewhat inaccurate and incomplete picture of his music. I, like many others (including, for a time, the entire musical world), was slow to embrace his sound – it is an acquired taste. But once it gets under your skin, Mahler speaks to you like nothing else, and it is joyous, celebratory, and even simple – as well as dark and deep. The Second Symphony was slow in its genesis and was derided and ridiculed by many colleagues whose opinion meant a great deal to Mahler. Fortunately, he had confidence and belief in this work and did not stop his completion of it.
In addition to the unusually large orchestral forces and heavenly length of this symphony (approximately an hour and 25 minutes, without intermission) there was also an engaging visual component at the performance. Surprisingly, the NCS did not augment the string section, which they sometimes do for other large works, but how often do you get to see ten French horns on stage? In the last two movements, there is a great deal of off-stage playing by both horns and trumpets so there was a constant stream of brass players coming and going. Seven kettle drums, along with a wide variety of percussion instruments handled by five players, made the back of the orchestra look like beautifully-choreographed movements for dance. Two harps beside the expanded wind section rounded out the orchestra, which produced the unmistakable "Mahler" sound. The North Carolina Master Chorale, under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, was positioned in the choir loft behind and above the orchestra. They had about an hour before they sang in the final movement, but the entire chorus was incredibly still throughout the wait. At times, it seemed that the choristers were a painting that came to life only in the most compelling and passionate moment.
Llewellyn was masterful in the pacing and control of this epic, and his graceful and expressive direction was a mirror of the emotional content of each movement. He guided us through the mammoth world-creation of the first movement to the lovely, relaxed, and wistful Ländler in the second. This is more than music – it is life, experience, and memories, unfolding in a story that on this occasion kept everyone listening with rapt attention. You could almost feel the communal zeroing in on every note, every phrase, every delicious orchestral color.
Mezzo-soprano soloist Mary Phillips made her entrance in the fourth movement in the very lowest part of her range and slowly climbed to a grand height, both pitch-wise and musically. If the Symphony ended right there, that in it would be a masterpiece, but then came the fifth movement – a creation so glorious and powerful that any attempt to describe it falls miserably short of its real effect. That said, even for those who are familiar with it through recordings, hearing this music live raises it to an even higher level. Just when you think that Mahler has inflamed your soul beyond what you can stand, the organ comes in with a floor-shaking chord, the chorus exalts in a harmony that you swear you have never encountered, and the entire orchestra plus soloists coalesce into a musical moment that transports you to another place. Even with the huge orchestral arsenal, the pure, pristine voice of Soprano Jane Jennings shone through and added a singular ray of light as she finally took her turn to join this spectacular tapestry.
Unfortunately, I now have to explain my previous comment. The beauty, grace, and emotional power of this creation was spoiled on May 12 by an NCS-sanctioned photographer who was freely roaming all over Meymandi Concert Hall, marring the quietest and most intense moments with clicking shutters. I was in the left side of the lower balcony; he returned several times to this area, and many people in my section were disturbed and upset about this inexcusable intrusion. While announcements are made to shut off electronic devices and they supply wax-wrapped cough drops to decrease coughing and wrapper rattling, this intrusion into the enjoyment of this concert was employed by the NCS and given free rein to click away. If anyone in NCS management is reading this, I urge you to correct this practice – there were many people who were very unhappy about this.