Resurrection Symphony: that’s how to do it

Tonight was the second of three performances of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall. It’s known as the Resurrection symphony. I’d recommend it to three different groups of people:

  • If you’re religious and conscious of the time of year (Passover / Easter)
  • If you’re seeking an alternative spirituality
  • If you simply want to enjoy a big powerful piece of music executed by a lot of people working together

The last time I reviewed a TSO performance of Mahler’s 2nd I was struggling to be positive, frustrated by the interpretation. While the notes on that occasion may have been played more precisely than this time, what does it matter when the interpretation leaves you cold? I know I can’t be the only one who feels this way, given the rhapsodic response this time, both on social media and especially in the hall.

As with my last TSO concert, there’s been a late replacement at the podium as Matthew Halls was brought in because of an indisposition. And once again the orchestra put in an extra effort.

Matthew Halls_Mahler Resurrection Symphony (@Jag Gundu)

Conductor Matthew Halls (photo: Jag Gundu)

I have a special relationship with this piece. (maybe everyone does?) I feel it was the piece that led me back to spirituality & religion, in a family who had been regular church-goers in my early childhood but who stopped for various reasons.

No wonder.  This work turns the season upside down. While it’s Maundy Thursday as I write this, on the eve of Good Friday, (the day celebrating Christ’s Crucifixion), in the lead-up to Easter (a festival of Jesus’s resurrection), this symphony is the opposite, and no I don’t mean because Mahler was Jewish. No.  Instead of celebrating one person’s rising from the dead, this text proclaims that we shall all rise again.

There is no hell in this theology. We are all forgiven, accepted, included.

But it’s not at all naïve. The text of the song “Urlicht” is an especially poignant reminder of the real world. While the singer tells of an angel who refuses entry, it’s chilling in its reminder of separations in places such as Auschwitz or border crossings. I played this song in church once, watching a singer who was partially disabled, unable to walk easily, to get close to the piano. As the traffic for the offertory collection rolled along with the singer doing her best, a flood of recognition filled my eyes, that we might all be rejected: just as Mahler himself had been in his time. The inclusiveness of the final resurrection chorale might seem sacred or spiritual, but it resonates powerfully in 2019.

While I may not have agreed with every interpretive choice made by Halls, who cares? He was wonderfully decisive, 100 times better than what we had last time. It was an interpretation, an approach that gave the performance a real edge, true passion.

To open Halls took a pace reminiscent of Klemperer, giving the opening a genuine gravitas. Every note seemed thought out and intentional at this pace, even if the movement unfolded a bit slowly. When I was in my teens this is how I understood the piece, at this stately tempo, fitting for a sacred rite. In due course Halls picked up the pace. Sometimes he accelerated, but slowed down for the restatement of the main theme, or for the dreamy second subject. But one saw such a commitment from this orchestra, a readiness to answer cues. While there may have been a fluffed note or two, it doesn’t matter. This was high drama, the way Mahler would have liked it.

I do wish the TSO would follow Mahler’s suggestion, to put a pause between the first movement and the rest of the symphony. It was on my mind as I listened to a few people applauding after the first movement tonight. If there’s an intermission: let them clap. And there was a great deal of restlessness, coughing, rustling of papers, before the second movement began. I think Mahler meant the fifth movement to be like a continuation of the first, with the three middle movements like interludes or intermezzi. If we are to think of that last movement in some sense being at the end of time, an apocalypse when the dead rise, it makes sense to have something in there, including an interval. I think we should be hearing those themes from a distance, recalling them as though time has passed.

Oh well, maybe next time.

One of the highlights of the concert was both musical and acoustical. Our two vocal soloists were situated in the middle of the choir loft upstage of the orchestra. When Marie-Nicole Lemieux stood up to sing “Urlicht” the voice came floating from the back. Yes she does have an amazing voice that you may recall from the Canadian Opera Company’s Falstaff from four and half years ago (apt as we anticipate Gerald Finley’s return for Otello). But the acoustic worked much better than I expected, her tone glorious, joined in the last movement by the soaring soprano voice of Joélle Harvey.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Joelle Harvey surrounded by Amadeus Choir & Iseler Singers, (photo: Jag Gundu)

I hope we will encounter Halls again, as he clearly knows what he’s doing, and the TSO responds to him, including string portamento like you might have heard a hundred years ago, the trumpets positively schmaltzy. The entry of the chorus (Amadeus Choir & Iseler Singers, sounding oh so beautiful) in the last movement was accomplished without requiring them to make the noise of standing (even at the very moment they were singing about rising). Perhaps I’m asking too much, dreaming of a performance without the comings & goings of players for the offstage moments; if the chorus standing up is disruptive, why not brass players commuting on and off the stage? Yes I know it would be expensive, perhaps impossible. But I’m just putting it out there, like my request that they honour Mahler’s request for a break after the first movement. I don’t think it even matters if the offstage trumpets or horns are out of synch or less perfect than the ones onstage. It’s theatre, and a magnificent idea. While Mozart & Verdi & Berlioz –to name three—each had a go at giving us their version of the trumpets of judgment (with the words “tuba mirum” in their respective requiem masses), I think Mahler’s is the most convincing, most heart-stoppingly beautiful. When the trumpets are a bit out of synch –as I suspect they would have been back in Mahler’s time, long before cc-TV—the effect is that much more poignant, like a lost corps of ghostly troops marching into the afterworld. Perfection is less important than meaningful playing, music that connects because it’s shaped into something.

Halls gets Mahler.

There is one more of these wonderful concerts to come, on Saturday April 20th . Go if you can.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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