This week brought an amazing surprise that led to a phenomenal listening opportunity. Here’s what happened…
As you may remember, my hubby and I moved from just outside Raleigh, NC to Newnan, GA about a month ago, so I could start my new teaching job at the University of West Georgia. We’ve been gradually getting settled in, meeting new people, and forming a little community of friends. (On a side note, why is it so much harder for adults to make friends than it is for children?)
So, anyway, on Wednesday night, we were chatting with a couple we recently met, and as often happens, the topic turned to what we do for a living. On learning that I am a musicologist, my new friends informed me of their deep love of music. The husband directs a choir, and the wife is a singer. Due to their background, these folks knew a bit more than the typical people with whom I have this kind of conversation. Still, I was a bit surprised to be asked about my primary research field. But when I responded, “I wrote my dissertation on Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lieder,” instead of the look of confusion that I usually get upon the revelation, this gentleman said, “I love Mahler! I used to listen to his music all the time in middle school (!). Are you going to see the ‘Resurrection’ tomorrow?”
Say what now?!?! Someone is performing my favorite symphony by my favorite composer tomorrow, and I didn’t know anything about it? I can only blame my newness to the area for that grievous oversight. So, as it turns out, this weekend is the opening of the new season for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and they kicked 2015-16 off with a bang by performing Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 (“The Resurrection”).
Then the question at hand, were we going? Well, I don’t know. 24 hours isn’t much notice. We also had the budget to consider. Moving 3 states away is a costly endeavor, and it seems like every time we turn around, there’s something new we need for the house. As bourgeois as it may sound, maybe sitting this one out wouldn’t be the worst thing ever to happen. Sigh… Reality can be such a bummer…
So, we get home from our outing as my husband’s phone begins to ring. It is our new friends. They want to know whether we would be free on either Thursday or Saturday night. Thinking they were going to invite us to dinner or something, and since we plan to finish some household projects on Saturday, Thursday is better for us. Ok. Vague and mysterious call, but it looks like we have some kind of plan on Thursday.
The following morning, we have an email. Our friends have decided that missing Mahler was unacceptable, so they purchased tickets for us! Once the shock of something so incredibly generous wore off, we began to make plans: what to wear, when to leave, where to go, etc…
Which brings us at last to the important part – the concert. Mahler was a man of extremes, and he loved wild, swinging contrasts from one end of the spectrum to the other. That being said, when his music is loud, it is LOUD. The performing forces last night were crammed onto the stage. There was a full string sections, 4 oboes, 3 clarinets, 5 flutes, at least 4 bassoon and a contrabassoon, an enormous brass section (6-7 horns, 5 trombones, 6 trumpets, tuba), a litany of percussionists, including 2 full sets of timpani, 2 harps, an organ, a 200-member choir, and 2 female soloists. This being the first time I’ve seen the ASO, I have no idea how that compares to a typical performance, but the simple fact that there was so little wiggle room on the stage leads me to think that they had needed to bring in some extra help to pull off this performance.
In spite of the huge forces, they were still able to create moments of gossamer delicacy, only to then turn around and blast the listener’s face off! The conductor led the performers up and down, like a musical roller coaster, through the intricacies of the piece. Though, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I would be able to follow his movements. He almost danced on the stage, and, perhaps it was watching from the other side of the baton, but try as I might, there were moments when I could not find the beat from his conducting. Luckily, the performers either weren’t watching him (not that any self-respecting ensemble performer has even ignored their conductor ;)), or they knew his motions well enough to follow them.
I have to say, it was the woodwinds that impressed me the most. There are some delightfully complex figures for clarinet, oboe, and flute in Mahler 2, and these performers knocked them out of the park.
The choir was also incredibly impressive! The voices blended so perfectly, and their dynamics were fantastic. When they first entered, it was almost like a whisper, which gradually grew to a scream of undeniable force. If Atlanta wasn’t almost an hour away and a traffic nightmare, I might consider looking into auditioning, thought, honestly, I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to cut it.
The fourth movement of the symphony is entitled “Urlicht,” which means “Primeval Light.” The movement is an orchestrated song for mezzo-soprano. The text comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and it is a simple prayer of a person seeking eternal salvation. The mezzo soloist had a lovely voice and she sang with lovely intonation. That said, her face read very little. She could have just as easily been singing a grocery list to look at her. Perhaps that was because most of the audience was focused on the translated text being projected on screens on either side of the hall. Maybe she’s just not a very visually expressive singer. I don’t know, but it struck me as a bit odd.
The final movement functions in a way very similar to the last movement of Beethoven 9, featuring a chorus and vocal soloists with lengthy instrumental passages woven around them. The text sung by the choir and soloists comes form the writings of Friedrich Neitzsche, conceptually a world away from those of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, though both texts are examining the afterlife and other metaphysical notions. It was in this movement where we heard the soprano soloist for the first time. Interestingly, one might say that her shortcomings were the exact opposite of the mezzo. She was lovely to watch, her face and body overflowed with emotion, but her voice was almost too large for her to control. It felt unwieldy, almost like it had a mind of its own. As a result, her vibrato was big enough to drive a truck through, and it was nearly impossible to fixate on any single pitch in her melodies. It’s unfortunate that the most blatant problem with the performance was not revealed until it was almost over. The timing made it nearly impossible to focus on the amazing music that had come before, and left a bit of a stain on the otherwise breathtaking performance.
Nonetheless, overall, it was a spectacular concert. Seeing music performed in person is always so different from listening to recordings, and when the piece being performed is something that you love, it makes everything just that much more special. I don’t know what we did to deserve such an incredible gift, but this evening is one I will cherish for a long time
Not surprisingly, I would suggest this week that you find a recording of Mahler: Symphony no. 2 (“The Resurrection”), so you can enjoy this masterpiece yourself. I’m not one of those people who spends hours on end comparing performances from different orchestras and conductors (I leave that for people with far more time on their hands), but a few stand out:
Leonard Bernstein is the interpreter that I know best, simply because his complete Mahler cycle on CD was a Christmas gift about 7 years ago. He tends to be a bit liberal with his interpretations of tempi and voicing, but, honestly, I think Mahler would have liked that – after all, he did the same thing with Beethoven.
If you want something more “authentic” (a word fraught with danger, but a discussion I will save for another time), Bruno Walter is your conductor. Walter was Mahler’s protégée and worked under him at the Vienna Opera. Given the scarcity of recording technology during Mahler’s life, Walter is about the closest thing we have to “how Mahler himself would have done it.”
A more interesting and contemporary take comes from Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco symphony. They recently completed recordings of all of Mahler’s works, and MTT has taken to Youtube in a series of videos discussing the works, his interpretations of them, and their historical significance, not unlike the music appreciation lectures Bernstein did back in the 1960s.
If you happen to be a person with time on your hands, and you decide to compare a few different performances, I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on them. How are they similar? How are they different? Do you have a preference? Talk to me!
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.