Maestro Robert Moody bade farewell to the devoted audience and orchestra that has been his for the last 13 years with a powerful performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, known as the “Resurrection Symphony.” This grandiose work is great in every possible meaning of the word – five movements explore post-Wagnerian harmonies with a super-sized orchestra, reinforced in every section (some three dozen extra players), and with brass players strategically placed in the four corners of the Stevens Center as well as back stage.

The Winston-Salem Symphony was joined by the 100 members of the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale (prepared by chorus master Christopher Gilliam), who waited stoically behind the orchestra for their moment in the last movement, when they were joined by Moody’s long-time colleague and friend, Elizabeth Bishop, mezzo-soprano, and Christina Pier, soprano, for the transfiguring finale – a moment universally dear to music lovers.

Mahler symphonies strike this writer as containing a major element of “musical geography,” events like mountain peaks and long moments of musical wilderness leading to rewarding vistas. Mahler-ian musical events have a sort of mystical “is-ness” (Istigkeit) which doesn’t depend on the listener. In a sense, this would explain why Mahler’s compositions can tolerate such a wide variety of dissimilar interpretations – and perhaps why conductors love to conduct Mahler.

Maestro Moody’s affection for the Second Symphony of Mahler was certainly clear enough. Grappling viscerally with the music, bare-handed and conducting long passages by memory, he emphasized the dramatic elements of the music in some of the quietest moments ever heard in the Stevens Center as well as one of the loudest. Tenderness, grief, bewilderment, and awe all found their place in this performance.

After a massive and thrilling first movement (Mahler asks for a 5-minute pause before continuing with the two tender and endearing dance movements which follow), a perplexing moment in the working of Mahler’s musical genius comes when he adds a movement from a previous work (“Des Knaben Wunderhorn” – “From a Boy’s Wonder Horn”), a cry for simple faith, almost out of place in the complex topography of the work so far. Alto soloist Bishop sang this “Urlicht” with a warm and touching voice and beautiful expressive vibrato. With words translated and projected high above the stage, this strange and tender movement stood alone in beauty and simplicity before the onslaught of the Judgment, heralded by trumpets and horns in every crook and cranny of the hall.

Finally the chorus enters, unaccompanied, with an intimate invitation to rise from the dust, and the announcement of resurrection whence the symphony derives its name. Singing from memory, the Symphony Chorale was chillingly beautiful as the soprano descant of Pier rose above the chorus, before joining Bishop in duet with the chorus, culminating in a most powerful ending.

Rarely in the last dozen years has the orchestra performed with such a unity of sound and purpose. Pianissimi were breathtaking, especially when the entire string section (over 50 players) played impeccable staccato passages (Mahler instructs to use springen Bogen). Always known for the very fine soloists within the various sections of the orchestra, this concert stood out for the cohesiveness and clarity of the ensemble playing as well as the balance of the sections with each other. I was especially impressed by the clean well-balanced bass and cello lines and with the clarity of the flutes and piccolos. The brief appearance of an electronic organ at the end was impressive enough but made me put “pipe organ” on my wish list for the future of the Stevens Center.

The concert began with the gorgeous final scene from Act III of Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss. Bishop sang the male role of young Octavian, who leaves his older lover, the gracious and understanding Marschallin, sung by soprano Pier, for the younger Sophie, sung by Cat Zachary, soprano. This is one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera, and certainly one of the best composed for female voices. It was beautifully sung by all three singers, delightful and inspiring, blurred only by the thickness of Strauss’ orchestration and the tendency of the orchestra to overpower the singers in the louder portions of the scene.

The concert repeats Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm. See sidebar for details. By the way, it is worthwhile arriving early to read the exhaustive program notes penned by Prof. David Levy.