There's something mystical about the music of Gustav Mahler. His symphonies and orchestral song cycles — works of heavenly length and unbounded earthly emotion — stir feelings that are deeply embedded in the human subconscious. These pieces tap directly into our collective fears, doubts and aspirations. No wonder many Mahlerites worship this music with near religious intensity.
Giancarlo Guerrero, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra's music director, has no doubts about the preternatural nature of Mahler's music. This weekend, he's closing the orchestra's classical series at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection. Guerrero considers Mahler's epic work about death and spiritual ascension to be a perfect metaphor for the Nashville Symphony's 2010-11 season, which began in the wake of a catastrophic flood and is now ending in a gloriously restored (make that resurrected) concert hall. Amazingly, Guerrero programmed this serendipitous symphony long before last spring's flood happened.
"It just goes to show that miraculous accidents really do occur in the universe," Guerrero says.
Guerrero actually planned to perform two Mahler symphonies this season. The 2010-11 season coincided with both the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth and the centennial of his death. To mark those occasions, the orchestra was going to open its classical series with Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and conclude it with the Mahler Second. The flood, however, nixed that plan, because the substitute venue, the War Memorial Auditorium, was too small to accommodate the Eighth Symphony's massive forces. "We'll be able to do the Eighth Symphony justice inside the Schermerhorn," says Guerrero.
Mahler's Second Symphony has also been waiting for its due. The NSO performed the final two movements of the Mahler Second at the 2006 gala opening of the Schermerhorn – obviously, the almost hysterical funeral music from the first movement and the surreal, grotesque third-movement scherzo would have seemed a bit out of place at a glitzy celebration. But the work in its terrifying, heart-rending yet life-affirming 80-minute entirety pays perfect tribute to the composer on the centennial of his death.
Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, who both performed at the gala, are returning for this weekend's program. Von Stade is arguably the foremost Mahler singer of her generation, and her rich, amber voice will be the first one heard at this weekend's performance. She will sing the fourth movement's setting of "Urlicht," or "Primeval Light," an arrangement that indeed sounds as if has been suffused in a warm glow. Mahler indicated that this song should be sung as if by a child who imagines she is in heaven. Von Stade sings the song with a slightly different image in mind.
"I imagine myself always moving from darkness into light," she says.
Guerrero has been thinking about his interpretation of the Mahler Second for most of his adult life. The greatest challenge in conducting this work, he says, has to do with the sheer size of the ensemble. Mahler arranged his Second Symphony for a huge late-Romantic orchestra that includes a full complement of string, brass, wind and percussion players along with two harpists, an organist, two vocal soloists and large mixed chorus.
"The hardest thing is to keep all of these forces together and sounding clear for more than an hour and a quarter," says Guerrero.
That's an awesome task, to be sure. Fortunately, it's one that Mahler foresaw. In addition to being a great composer, Mahler was also one of the foremost conductors of his time. His expertise at the podium is reflected everywhere in his score.
He left absolutely nothing to chance. Surely, few composers have ever filled their scores with as many performance instructions. On the opening page of the Second Symphony, for instance, Mahler isn't content simply to indicate a tempo (fast and stately). He qualifies that tempo, specifying the exact mood the players should adopt in their interpretation (with quite serious and solemn expression).
Mahler's instructions regarding dynamics — the degree of loudness or softness in a performance — are precise to the point of being neurotic. Most composers use the symbol "ppp" (pianississimo) for extremely soft playing. Not Mahler, who in the Second Symphony notates his truly quiet passages as "pppppp" (pianissississississimo), a dynamic that seemingly owes more to philosophy than to physics. During rehearsals, Mahler was known occasionally to yell "Too loud!" at his musicians before they even played a note. Now we know why.
But Mahler's painstaking, one might even say obsessive-compulsive, attention to detail has resulted in some of the most visceral music ever written. Climactic passages in Mahler's symphonies can literally make you jump out of your seat. Tranquil passages seemingly stop time. New Yorker critic Alex Ross recently noted that Mahler's spine-chilling musical effects "often arise from collisions between music and noise, music and silence. They imitate the sublimity of nature — eruptions, thunderclaps, the roar of waterfalls — and thereby trigger an instinctive shiver of awe and fear."
Certainly, Mahler knew his waterfalls. He once visited Niagara Falls, and history records that this impossible-to-please composer was actually satisfied with the Niagara River's performance.
"At last, fortissimo!" Mahler exclaimed.
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