A Conductor’s Musings on Mahler 2

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Philosopher Alan Watts once said: “No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve as it goes along, or that the whole object of playing is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it.” Though not referring to Mahler specifically, I find no better quote summarizes the journey we are about to take together on May 16th with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

The music of Gustav Mahler represents the apex of the symphonic and choral- orchestral repertoire.  It firmly resides in the land of masterworks, and certainly most of Mahler’s pieces deserve to be considered alongside the greatest works of other composers. Mahler’s Second Symphony is such a work, easily considered among greatest choral-orchestral works of all time. It shares the podium with Beethoven’s Ninth, the Requiems by Mozart, Verdi and Faure, Handel’s Messiah, and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

But the work is much more than that. Like Beethoven’s great capstone, the chorus is used sparingly, yet to great dramatic effect. In fact, the choir waits to sing until 80 minutes or so into the work, and then shockingly, sings a capella! In Mahler’s hands, the chorus is merely the next logical color choice to use at this point in the symphony. But this is not the only giant force used so sparingly. The organ plays only the closing few minutes of the work. The off-stage compliment of horns, trumpets, percussion similarly do not appear until the last movement. And we mustn’t forget the most alluring choice of all, the two solo voices: a mezzo soprano who sings the otherworldly 4th movement, “Urlicht,” and a soprano who joins in the 5th movement.

Yes, it is a BIG work, but it’s not only about large forces (over 300 will be involved in this performance). It is also about stamina. The orchestra needs to play for over 90 minutes, navigating a multitude of dynamics, articulations, stylistic conventions and ensemble combinations. There are solos for nearly every player and section. Mahler’s orchestra challenges the musicians to both perform and listen differently from most of the orchestral literature.

While the work itself is a challenge to play, it is also an inviting one of personal journey; and this is where the audience gets involved. I know of almost no other work that grips both audiences and musicians alike and with such power. Musicians leave rehearsals physically exhausted, emotionally engaged and spiritually charged. Audiences experience much of the same, never feeling that 90 minutes have passed. Our patrons are in for a great ride!

How can such a huge piece, be so demanding and yet also so uplifting? Perhaps Mahler left us some clues in the composition of the piece. Each section has meaning both on the surface and also hidden in layers.

His Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony, was composed over a long period from 1888 to 1894. It was his first work of many that established his lifelong depictions of beauty and the afterlife. But Mahler was also creating a completely new soundscape, one never experienced before and only hinted at from the opera stage. There is a great interiority to his work. We are pulled into Mahler’s vision, much as a poet or great novelist might do. We are able to see through his lens and thus find out something about ourselves.

Mahler’s invitation to “look here,” comes from an unusual place initially: Death. The first movement is a massive expose on the eventuality of our lives, the power of fate, and the terror with which we often view death. But this is no mere caricature like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, nor is it meant to drag us into the depths of despair like Faust. It is actually the most external of all the movements, and began its life as a stand-alone tone-poem titled “Totenfeier” (Funeral Rites). Soon after writing it, though, Mahler realized it was just the beginning, not the end: to look at life starting from the perspective of death was perhaps revolutionary in symphonic music.

The second movement takes us into that life with much nostalgia. Mahler gives us a favorite dance from his country, an Austrian Ländler, with the musical instructions to play “very leisurely, never rushed.” In an early program Mahler described this movement as a “remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased.”

The third movement is a wonderfully sarcastic look at the meaningless activity of human life. Explained through metaphor, Mahler quotes his earlier music from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a setting of “St. Anthony of the Fishes,” humorously depicting a drunk St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish, who lift their heads to listen, fail to understand, and simply go about their business of being fish. The writing in this movement is vivid and descriptive, and extremely challenging, as the orchestra is depicting giant school of fish!

This quizzical depiction is questioned in the 4th movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), where we finally hear our mezzo soprano ask the eternal question and ask to be released from a meaningless life. This beautiful song is also from his Knaben Wunderhorn songs, and is by far the shortest of the movements. I consider it to be a respite as well as a bridge to the Finale.

The 5th and final movement starts with a death shriek, one that we have already heard in the third movement, but perhaps lacked context when it first appeared. This opens one of the most innovative and expansive movements in history, where Mahler, literally, pulls out all the stops. Here we are transported to the afterlife though a musical journey. The Dies Irae of the first movement returns, but it is no longer frightening, rather assured, even majestically scored. We are certainly in another realm with this music. The dead arise from their graves and we are carried along in a march that is oddly joyous and certain. Offstage brass calls, perhaps angelic summons, finally herald the first entrance of the chorus, who softly intone, “Rise again, yes rise again.” Our soprano and mezzo soloists now join as well. Even the offstage “angels” return to stage for the grand finale where the choir triumphantly declares:

“Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

When the orchestra finally cuts off, the mood is one of joy, akin to Beethoven’s Ninth. But unlike that work, there is perhaps more certainly in Mahler’s music. In Mahler’s mind, and likely in that of the musicians and audience, it is not mere possibility and hope we celebrate, but certainty; conviction that we can rest assured. And it is glorious.

This journey with the Salt Lake Symphony, our soloists, Kirstin Chavez and Melissa Heath, and the Utah Voices has been equally glorious. It is also quite an accomplishment for two community-based ensembles. It is now our joy to share this great music with you. Sit back and enter into this soundscape. Our wish is that you be as moved and uplifted as we are by this wondrous music.

Copyright, 2019. Robert Baldwin

(Note: This post will also appear as program notes for the concert on 5/16/19)

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Concert Details:

Salt Lake Symphony with the Utah Voices

Melissa Heath, soprano, Kirstin Chávez, mezzo-soprano
Thursday May 16, 2019 7:30 p.m.

Libby Gardner Concert Hall

University of Utah Campus, 1375 E. President’s Circle, SLC, UT 84112

Tickets $15
Available at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Free Parking for Libby Gardner Hall: 100 South and Wolcott (1450 East)

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Mozart’s Coda

To me, the opportunity to perform a masterwork is similar to being allowed to touch a sculpture by a great artist like Michelangelo or Rodin. To feel every texture and contour, tracing your fingers where the master artist made his/her creation; each texture, rise and fall an imprint on eternity. What’s more, if you look deeply enough, there is artistic DNA embedded there. And like a scientist, secrets will be revealed to the performing musician who studies and prepares with patience, focus and openness. Then those secrets soon begin to work their inner magic on the initiate.

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A musical score that weaves through the personal landscape while still clothed in tradition, Mozart’s Requiem is one of those works that is as satisfying both to the audience as well as to the performers–intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We will preface the massive K.626 with one of Mozart’s other final and fantastically personal choral works, also written in the last months of his life, the ever-so-poignant Ave verum corpus, K. 618. Tender and introspective, it provides a perfect scene-setter to the Requiem.

Yes, I’m excited about this weekend’s performance. I cannot assure that you will be transported to a different plane of existence, but why take the chance that you may miss out? It’s something special! I hope you can join us.

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Mozart’s Coda
Saturday May 19, 2018 7:30 pm

Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Salt Lake City
Julie Wright Costa, soprano, Kirstin Chavez, mezzo-soprano, Robert Breault, tenor, Seth Keeton, bass
Utah Voices, chorus

Mozart Ave verum corpus
Mozart Requiem

Mozart’s Requiem has long been hailed as one of the great masterpieces of western art. To listen to this music is to be transported to a different time and space. Come hear the Salt Lake Symphony, Utah Voices and U of U Faculty Voice Quartet perform this masterpiece, as we bring our season to a close with style and gravitas. It’s a fitting end to a grand season of music.

Tickets: $15.
Available from utahvoices.org, or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Free Parking for Libby Gardner Hall: 100 South and Wolcott (1450 East)

 

Bicentennial Verdi, An Enigmatic Hero

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In music, we strive to find the personality of a composer through his or her music.  In classical music, we have the advantage of performing great works for years, even centuries, trying to decipher layers of meaning.  When we allow ourselves to search, we eventually realize that composers are no different from the rest of us.  Even coming from a different culture, century and country, we all come from the same basic place when it comes to life, struggles, and attempts to identify meaning within our world.  When it comes right down to it, the composer either is trying to tell us something or inviting us into his inner world.

This coming Saturday, I have the honor of conducting a collaborative concert with the Salt Lake Symphony and the Utah Voices that will explore the two sides of Italy’s most famous composer, Giuseppe Verdi.

The concert is a tale of two halves.  Utah Voices maestro, Michael Huff, will conduct the first half of the program, consisting of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces (Quattro Pezzi Sacri).   These pieces were written separately, but are frequently performed as a set.  This is Verdi the Agnostic, utilizing religious texts and themes to explore and express inner meaning.  He makes no attempts to hide that there are secrets, even unanswered questions.  Small wonder he chose the so-called “enigmatic scale” for his setting of the Ave Maria.   

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That he was trying to say something with these pieces is evident.  But was he trying to express something to the audience, or work out some inner conundrum? Like a philosophical Tootsie Pop, “The World May Never Know.”  But he invites us to go deeper with this powerful yet reflective music.  His desire to be buried with the score of the Te Deum certainly piques my interest even more!

The second half of the program is devoted to a wide selection operatic music, Verdi’s most public legacy.  We will open with the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. This energetic piece contains gypsy music and yes, anvils!  (Well, what we are actually using is a stage secret until the performance!).   In La Forza del Destino, the overture and the famous aria, Pace, pace (sung by Melissa Heath), Verdi looks inward and then expresses strongly the search for the meaning of life (literally “the force of destiny”).  If that reminds us of Beethoven, there is good reason.  Beethoven is his role model in many ways, musically and inspirationally.  The gorgeous and moving Va, Pensiero from Nabucco is a piece that still is considered a national song of Italian pride and patriotism in Italy.  It is actually a paraphrase from Psalm 137, referring to the Jews in Babylonian exile.  The Italians deeply identified with this separation and longing when the piece was composed, which coincided with the Italian unification and establishment of Italy as one nation.  The music is so moving that even today, Italians rally to the cause with this music.  Here’s a great example from 2009, an amazing encore in Rome when the government had announced deep cuts to arts funding.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laSuOwGgVvQ

We close with the most extroverted chorus of all, the final scene from Act II of Aida.  It’s got it all: a song of praise, a march, a dance scene and a joyous chorus.  We will be praising the gods, kings, soldiers, etc.  Sorry, elephants don’t fit through the stage door.

As an popular opera composer, Verdi had the means of reaching a wide swath of the 19th-century public.  He used his talents to further the noble ideals of the time.  His music led to change, and today invites us to personally explore deeper meaning in his music.   If you are in the Salt Lake area this Saturday, consider this your invitation to be moved and go deeper.  It’s also great music to simply sit back and enjoy.  Here are the details:

Verdi: A Bicentennial Celebration
Salt Lake Symphony and Utah Voices

Saturday May 18, 2013 7:30 pm
Libby Gardner Hall

Tickets $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Available by calling 801-792-1313 or at the door with cash, check or credit card.


Copyright, 2013. Robert Baldwin