Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mahler's 'Resurrection'

A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything. - Gustav Mahler

The local symphony orchestra gave a creditable performance last evening of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony No. 2. I mention this because the orchestra recently retired its past conductor, a serviceable older gentleman whose idea of an edgy cultural evening was a performance of Gustav Holtz's "The Planets" followed by a brisk medley of Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes. To his credit, the new musical director has decided to attempt some more ambitious works on the petit bourgeoisie of this Front Range backwater.

In any case, the Resurrection Symphony isn't about any particular raising from the dead nor even parking lot sightings of anyone famous. Rather it's Mahler in a philosophical vein exploring questions of life and immortality. Mahler, who once remarked that "Behind me the branches of a wasted and sterile existence are cracking," evidently liked to take up such heady existential material, not necessarily coming to any triumphal conclusions.

Resurrection or reenactment?

To be fully and properly developed, such questions generally require a room full of college sophomores and a keg of beer. Moreover, as Nietzsche remarks somewhere, "German music is full of beer," which goes some way towards endorsing it as a philosophical medium. Mahler is certainly full of beer - not as in "biergarten oompah-pah," but full of beer as in "crashing through the plate glass door in your white tie." 

One look at the orchestra and you could have guessed it was going to be Mahler and the plate glass door: ranged around the edges of the full orchestra was enough brass hardware to open a Turkish import shop - cymbals the size of Packard hubcaps; a pair of large gongs, one I'd guess about a 32-incher, the other about a 40-incher; triangles, xylophone, a brace of harps.

The brass section

Stage directions for the percussion section list, among assorted other hardware, enough wood, hide and additional metal for a real barnburner:
     timpani (two players, eight timpani, a third player using two of the drums in the final movement)
     several snare drums
     bass drum
     three deep, untuned steel rods or bells
     offstage percussion (in Movement 5): bass drum with cymbals attached, triangle, timpano

At the appointed time, I settled into my seat in the upper balcony amid a busload of tuberculars, asthmatics and assorted spasmodics, several of whom exited across my legs when the realization dawned that this wasn't the Easter pageant they anticipated. (How so many respiratory invalids can scale that many flights of stairs into the upper reaches of our performance spaces is one of the great mysteries of our cultural lives.)

The balcony crowd waiting for Mahler's "Resurrection"

Years ago, some kind friend gave me an instructive precis of Mahler's musical style: "You have to wait," he explained, "through what seems like hours of noise and bombast to get a minute or two of an exquisite melody."  True to form, the music commenced with the sharp roll of timpani, wove its way through waltz and scherzo, dirge and lament, clash of brass, distant soundings of horn and drums; in short, all the Romantic, otherworldly brio that Mahler could bring to bear on a Romantic, otherworldly question. At intervals a section of horn players would troop offstage as discreetly as they could manage, and after the distant plaintive sounds of assorted French horns, trumpet and flute, would file back and take their seats. Back and forth they filed, music offstage answering music, back again to their seats.

Somewhere near the end of the third movement things got down to business - the full complement of equipment was pressed into service, the windows rattled, the asthmatics went silent, and the orchestra offered up its "cry of despair," which the composer himself referred to as the "death shriek." Serious enough to require the full services of the third timpanist, the cymbals and both gongs. This all to set the stage for some vocal musings from a pair of sopranos, who are joined in the fifth (and final) movement by the full chorus. (If four movements were good for Beethoven's choral symphony, then Mahler would do him one better and go for five in style.)

All in all it was an enjoyable and instructive evening. Not philosophically instructive so much as musically enlightening, since Mahler gives all sorts of anticipatory visual clues about what's going to happen next. I discovered, for example, that I could attend to the timpanistas and the cymbal-and-gong section for my visual cues. If the timpanists were sitting on their stools looking off serenely into the middle distance, or even if only one of them plied the cowhide, then the music promised to be relatively calm and melodic. Ditto if the cymbal clasher was tinking away on the marimba and the gong player was in a brown study, chewing on one end of his thumper. But when the gong player rose to his feet and began to limber up his mallet wrist, when the big brass disks of the cymbal were hefted to the ready, I knew the roof was about to go off. It was top-shelf gongsmanship, worthy of J. Arthur Rank.

I can't say the gong carried off the entire argument for a final resurrection. That's more than I know. But I should probably mention that I'm not a professional critic.

1 comment:

  1. I can hear the disadvantaged in the balcony now, in their best Ben Stine voices, "Mahler? Mahler? Mahler?