Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mahler's sublime Second Symphony

On January 26, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, under Principal Guest Conductor, Donald Runnicles, presented Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection.”  The soloists were Nicole Cabell, Soprano, and Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-soprano.  The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus was prepared by Norman Mackenzie.

This symphony is one of the greats in the late romantic period.  Mahler wrote large, but never sprawling, symphonies whose themes usually have to do with those things that make us human.  I have been listening to Mahler for decades, but must admit that I never really understood them.  But recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Maestro Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s First.  Honeck’s interpretation highlights the folk-themes of the music and he plays particular attention to the layering of the music so that the inner voices do not get lost in a smear of sound.  Honeck’s interpretation is wonderful and moved me to a much greater appreciation of Mahler’s genius.
The ASO performance was stunning.  Runnicles has started to seat the sections of the orchestra in the European style (basses to the left, second violins to the right, with the celli adjacent to them).   This arrangement causes the soundboards of the low strings face directly into the auditorium.  Mahler’s music is rich with low strings and the seating arrangement provides a wonderful showcase for it. 

Mahler wrote this symphony for a very large orchestra, augmented with enhanced percussion, two harps, and organ.  At several points throughout the work, musicians leave to play-off stage.  The effect is stunning, particularly when Mahler’s music describes the clarion call of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.   Mahler wrote some grand fortes, using the full resources of the orchestra, but especially the low brass, tam-tams, and, two sets of tympani.  In spite of Symphony Hall’s problematic acoustics, this mass of sound was rich without being strident.  I noticed that some of the musicians took to wearing earplugs at the height of the sound, especially with the French horn players sitting next to the cymbals and tam-tams.   In several passages the reeds were required to play with their bells facing out toward the audience so as to increase their volume when they were massed with the rest of the orchestra.  The reeds never sounded harsh or squeaky.  Special kudos goes to Christina Smith, principal flute, and David Coucheron, concertmaster for outstanding solo work. 

Much has been said about the glories of the ASO chorus.  Their diction is precise, as if only one voice was singing.  Their performance was outstanding, bringing strength and beauty to Mahler’s lyrics.  Both Cabell and O’Connor are strong soloists.  Both were able to produce volume without losing their tonal quality.   Ms. O’Connor has a warm mezzo voice that fit perfectly with Mahler’s musings about earthly life, death, and eternity.  Both women had to sit and face the audience for a long time before their solos.  Ms. O’Connor took the opportunity to revel in Mahler’s music.  It was nice to see a musician enjoy the music to which she is a part. 

There was one long standing ovation for this performance.  It was well deserved and it seemed so much more genuine than the obligatory S.O. that ASO audiences give at nearly every performance.   
Finally, there was nary a seat empty in Symphony Hall.  That was nice to see. 

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