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Stevens Center resounded with floor-shaking waves of sound from percussion batteries and extra brass blazing onstage or calling to each other from offstage. Hushed moments of intimate reflection alternated with blasts from the full orchestra or massed choirs. A near capacity audience was swept up in Gustav Mahler’s soul-searing search for life’s meaning, what Deryck Cooke (in Gustav Mahler) called “the challenge to find some significance in a life which is doomed to extinction.” This obsession with death, along with an immense guilt associated with the early deaths of his siblings and his own children, is at the core of most of the composer’s works. In his first public performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, Music Director Robert Moody led the enlarged Winston-Salem Symphony, vocal soloists, and choral forces in an interpretation that successfully met most of the composer’s demands.
Generations born after the development of penicillin and disease vaccines can little appreciate how heavily death weighed upon earlier generations. Birth rates were large because of the high mortality rates for children. As a child, Mahler was hypersensitive and haunted by the guilt of outliving a favorite brother. Although he later rejected any detailed program for Symphony No. 2, he had given several detailed “stories” behind the work’s five movements. The bombastic first movement is preoccupied with death’s omnipotence and is a fast-paced funeral march with a strong undercurrent of anger. Movements II and III act as an interlude and deal with life and all its joys and bitterness. Mahler uses the rhythm of an Austrian Ländler as a “dance of life,” portraying memory of life’s happiness. For the third movement Scherzo, Mahler uses a quicker type of Ländler to represent what the composer described in a letter as “the confusion of life,” and what Cooke describes as his “vision of life’s bitterness-total bitterness.” Perhaps there is something sardonic about Mahler’s use of one of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes.” Without pause, the contralto or mezzo-soprano sings “the rapt, hymn-like setting…” of the Wunderhorn poem “Urlicht,” a catechism-like affirmation of faith in God. The huge finale returns to the questions of the first movement and invokes the Last Judgment with fanfares for onstage and offstage brass and massed percussion. The concluding choral text uses the first two stanzas of Klopstock’s poem Der Auferstehung (The Resurrection) followed by words written by Mahler.
While it would have been nice to have had more extra strings in the violins, Moody met most of Mahler’s extra player demands for brass, percussion, and woodwinds. I counted 11 horns, one above the composer’s ten, two harps, and an off-stage “electronic” organ. The sound from Row E of the balcony was terrific, sometimes overpowering. The balance of the strings was surprisingly good most of the time, their warm tone buried only in the savage loud passages for brass and percussion. Concertmistress Corine Brouwer’s important solos came through beautifully. Long stretches of Mahler’s score are played like refined chamber music. Delicate and refined playing by portions of the string sections and woodwinds contributed to the mood of intimacy between grandiose bouts for full forces.
Moody wisely ignored one direction of Mahler’s, a long pause between the first two movements, originally intended for reflection. For the modern audience it just breaks the effect of hearing the work whole. In comments before the performance, Moody told listeners to meet the composer in his own times, not ours. The loss of the pause is an exception that otherwise proves that approach.
The conductor’s seating of soloists was innovative and effective. Instead of seating them front stage by the conductor, Moody had mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop seated on a riser between the violins and the double sets of timpani. She phrased beautifully, and her generously rich lower range reminded me of classic performances by Maureen Forrester who sounded like a contralto but was usually listed as a mezzo. Soprano Christina Major sang her early part from within the soprano section of the chorus and moved next to Bishop for the conclusion. Hers is a warm and evenly supported dramatic soprano. The members of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale and the North Carolina School of the Arts Cantata Singers managed to move quickly into place under cover of one of Mahler’s loudest orchestral sections, the opening of the fifth movement’s reference back to the symphony’s opening. Off-stage trumpets and percussion were managed splendidly but there was some uncertain ensemble from the four off-stage horns. The combined choirs enunciated their text clearly. Any minor slips in this performance were insignificant before the passion and sweep of Moody’s stirring recreation of the composer’s vision.