Once in a lifetime
Mahler’s monumental Resurrection is a rare treat indeed
This weekend the North State Symphony will be performing a work—Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, known as the Resurrection—that is almost never presented outside of large metropolitan areas. Small regional orchestras such as the NSS ordinarily don’t have the resources to mount this “monster concert,” as Music Director and Conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett described it.
Mahler’s Second is a natural progression for the symphony, which three years ago did Mahler’s First and earlier this year performed Brahms’ First, both large, challenging works. But the Mahler Second “is on a whole different scale than the [Mahler] First. … It’s a big symphony plus,” Pickett said during a recent interview.
Somehow, though, Pickett and Executive Director Keith Herritt have managed it. They’ve reached as far as Travis Air Base, in Fairfield, for horn players and Ashland, Ore., for percussionists.
The interview took place at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and Pickett, a slender, youthful man with close-cropped brown hair, had been rehearsing the orchestra since 10 that morning. He seemed both exhausted and exhilarated.
Mahler is famous for hefty symphonies, and the Resurrection is one of his heftiest, second only in number of musicians to his Eighth, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand.” In addition to an expanded orchestra of some 84 pieces, including “the largest possible contingent of violins,” as Mahler notes in the score, as well as beefed-up brass and percussion sections, it includes a chorus of 200 voices as well as two soloists, a soprano and a mezzo-soprano. At some point, in other words, there will be nearly 300 people performing.
“It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” Pickett said. “Seeing and hearing Mahler’s Second done live is an incomparable experience. Even the greatest orchestra in the world can’t compare, in a recording, with a live performance.”
During his lifetime (1860-1911) Mahler was most famous as a conductor, especially of the Vienna Opera and, shortly before he died, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. He took summers off from conducting, however, to compose 10 symphonies (the last was uncompleted) and several song cycles. Songs figure prominently in several of his symphonies, including the Second.
His work forms a bridge between the late-romanticism of the 19th century and the 20th-century modernism represented by such composers as Schoenberg, Berg, Britten, Shostakovich and Copland, all of whom he influenced. He pushed the symphonic form into new realms, incorporating folk-song and peasant melodies, “high” and “low” styles, a kaleidoscopic array of sounds (listen for the bells in the Resurrection), musical self-parody, a flirtation with atonality and the use of radical discontinuities—elements also found in late-20th-century postmodernism.
All of which discussion risks losing sight of the sheer gorgeousness of Mahler’s music, as well as its accessibility. As Pickett said, “Even though [the Resurrection] is big, it’s not daunting.” It slowly builds from tragedy (the First Movement is a kind of funeral march) and despair into the huge Fifth Movement, with its grand musical evocation of the uplifting spiritual transcendence suggested by the work’s title.
As big as Mahler could get, however, he was capable of an intensely delicate lyricism, and there are many such moments in this work. Pickett says there’s a section in the Fourth Movement that to him is “the most beautiful five minutes in music.”
He’s excited to be working again with the two soloists, soprano Joyce Parry Moore and mezzo Elizabeth Madsen Bradford, both veteran professional singers. Pickett conducts the Juneau Symphony as well as the NSS, and a few years ago in Alaska the singers were soloists in a production of Verdi’s Requiem. Their voices worked so well together, and they liked each other so much, that they subsequently formed a separate vocal act, singing operatic duets in performance.
“This is a piece people are really excited to play,” Pickett said. “Anybody who hasn’t been to a North State Symphony concert, or hasn’t been in a long time, is going to be astounded at the level of playing.”