Mahler’s Apocalyptic Second Symphony performed by the Santa Cruz Symphony at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts Sunday May, 6 was a brilliantly executed performance that had a tremendous impact on members of the sold out audience. It is indeed impressive when a young conductor makes musical magic on the podium and transforms the vast ideas of a composer such as Gustav Mahler into unremitting musical intensity. To compound this intensity, once again Maestro Daniel Stewart conducted this masterpiece from memory!
Not long after completing his Symphony No. 2, Mahler said: “The term ‘symphony’ means creating a world with all the technical means available.” The Resurrection Symphony is an all-embracing work, with the ability of a chameleon to change color and texture, as when the creative passion of red, with the energy and joy of green and yellow, mix to create the Spring season of May. And to further add complexity, the Resurrection was Mahler’s first grandly scaled symphony in which he made use of voices, all of which set him decisively on another scale that would become his legacy. The winds were augmented with four flutes/piccolos, four oboes, two English horns, four clarinets with bass and Eb clarinets, four bassoons, two contrabassoons. The brass section added seven French horns, six trumpets, four trombones and one tuba. The percussion family added three timpanists and five percussionists. Total musician count: 98. The Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus boasted 81 members, with Metropolitan Opera soloists Gabriella Reyes de Ramirez, soprano and Sara Couden, contralto.
Maestro Stewart’s emphasis on keeping the large orchestra moving through the 90 minute symphony resulted in a continuous sense of atmosphere and meaningful contrasting strategy on a monumental scale. The work is in five movements, each prefaced by Mahler’s comments. The five movement compositional gamut covers his symbolic, evocative journey from the meaning of life, fear of worldly death to what happens afterwards and spiritual resurrection.
The first movement designated Allegro maestoso opened with great vehement string depth in the double basses and cellos followed by vibrating violins and violas cutting through the dense texture like an audible knife. Mahler called this movement a “Funeral Rite.” Throughout the sprawling score Stewart adhered to Mahler’s instructions: “With complete gravity and solemnity of expression,” “Very leisurely,” “Never rush” and “With quietly flowing movement.” At the 9 minute mark, iambic rhythmic units (weak strong) in the basses effectively urged the momentum onward somewhat like a moving drone. This rhythmic grouping functioned as one of two dominating rhythmic leitmotives that wove their way through the five movements with great effectiveness.
There was a sense of Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) permeating this work. Mahler wanted dynamic contrasts. To this point, the orchestra played the forte designations with authority contrasting with soft playing in specified sections. Stewart urged string players to remain on the cutting edge of audibility with stunning effectiveness. Mahler was so concerned about contrast between the first and second movements that he asked for a five minute pause. Mahler’s reason was to show the interlude in life of the person deceased in the first movement. At this point there was the customary Intermission.
The second movement centered on the remembrance of happier times. Not only did Maestro Stewart meet the challenge of the first movement with an appropriate amount of weight and breath to fix itself in the minds of the audience, but he also gave us a foreshadowing of the great events about to unfold. The lovely ascending transitional theme that followed flowed naturally and gave it lyrical grace by the sensitivity of Stewart’s direction and the playing of an orchestra that not only was prepared, but steeped and inspired in the challenge of Mahler’s music. The concept of the essential funeral lament was performed as Mahler meant it to be, with controlled intensity and a fine sense of inner tension as was the impressive pastoral element of the English horn. The pizzicato in the closing section interjected an image that seemed to be whispered, but only in the mind, as an illusion.
Mahler’s detailed instructions for the second movement reads Andante moderato. Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen. (very leisurely. never rush). In contrast to the storm and stress of the first movement, the bucolic textures created by the orchestra in the second movement depicted moments of pastoral innocence that were well paced and well executed, observing Mahler’s instruction ‘don’t hurry.’ It is here that Mahler emphasized the second rhythmic grouping in the strings, the dactyl, strong-weak-weak, as in a waltz. The double basses followed with the flutes above creating a lovely antiphonal moment.
The second and third movements are related as they reflect on memories and even fantasies associated with funeral rites creating a strong sense of the symphony’s architecture. Again, Mahler’s instructions gave light to this point: In ruhig fliessender Bewegung (with quietly flowing movement).
The third movement takes on the formal structure of a Scherzo and is based on Mahler’s earlier setting of Der Wunderhorn, the satirical song about Saint Anthony of Padua preaching a sermon to the fishes and birds. The orchestra brought out the two detailed rhythmic groupings with the timpani and bassoons against the winds with interjections of brass outbursts that spun the music forward including a lovely trumpet solo that emerged bright and golden.
Contralto Sara Couden, in lustrous voice, was fantastic in the setting of “Urlicht” Primal Light from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Stewart’s direction kept the orchestral textures churning while shaping Mahler’s rhythmic figures with freshness and accuracy that always maintained excellent overall balance.
The orchestra burst into the stormy finale that shifted from the depths of despair with Mahler’s reverent settings of the poem Auferstehung (Resurrection) by Gottlieb Klopstock. The words sung by soprano Gabrielle Reyes de Ramirez brought more dramatic imagination to the texts. The admirable Cabrillo Symphony Chorus directed by Cheryl Anderson produced a sound of levitation and wonder. The dynamic choral balance with the lush orchestration was compelling and added extra fluidity and coherence. The supple and rich string playing, expressive woodwind (solo oboe in particular) and infallibly accurate and mellow-toned brass, performed throughout the concert with unfailing sensitive precision. Director Stewart assured that the very grand final pages had tremendous impact, full of the Mahler-prescribed gravity and solemnity of expression. The brass blare, the chorus and soloists sailed on wings of highly defined ecstasy. There were many moments that were more emotionally rather than physically challenging. The orchestra alternated fanfares and birdsong material with 4 French horns, 4 trumpets and 3 percussionists in an ensemble, conducted by Nathaniel Berman, performing outside the packed concert hall. Since neither venue was equipped with an organ, the organ part was performed electronically. Maestro Stewart guided the orchestra, chorus and soloists with deep expressivity through its long journey with a sure hand to its tumultuous grand finale. Among the many impressive works performed this season, the Mahler “Resurrection” reigned most impressive!
Kudos to Maestro Daniel Stewart, orchestra, chorus and soloists. It was a compelling performance in all respects!