The Minnesota Orchestra performed a rare benefit concert for the lame, the halt and the blind at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis Friday night. For surely those were tuberculosis patients over there on the left side of the auditorium, and arthritics and amputees on the right side. How else to explain the preponderance of coughing and program-dropping that provided a constant undercurrent of distraction to an otherwise bravura performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony?
The Resurrection, is the appellation that has been attached to the work, although Mahler did not name the symphony. But the themes of death, redemption and resurrection make the title a natural. The first movement, marked allegro maestoso, was funereal in nature, and, indeed was originally a stand-alone piece called Todtenfeier (Funeral Rites). Mahler incorporated it into his second symphony to tie it to the end of his first, where the hero, the Titan, dies. The beginning of the second is his funeral.
This first movement is up, down, inside out and all around. Manny Laureano, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, and who gave the pre-concert talk, called Mahler bi-polar. And so it seems at times. But Mahler’s works are epic because life and death are epic and full of happiness and sadness, often following quickly on each other’s heels. From a rumbling, sharp beginning to a finish that is barely heard, Mahler plumbs the heights and depths of the human soul. (And, the quietest part of the last of this first movement is where the most egregious coughing occurred, causing Maestro Vanska to shake his head in disgust while finishing the movement and then to shake his handkerchief at the audience afterwards.)
The second and third movements, andante moderato and in ruhig fliessender Bewegung, respectively, are sweet and innocent (in the second), turning into a mocking expression (in the third). But by the fourth movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), the hero begins the process of his redemption that leads to the fifth, Auferstehung (Resurrection). Mahler takes the text for the fourth movement from a German folk tale collection called Des Knaben Wunderhorn. (He would later set other of these verses to music in a collection of songs of the same name.) The mezzo soprano sings of the great pain and woe that mankind faces and of his struggle to regain his heavenly home. (“Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!”)
Jennifer Larmore, with her rich, but ethereal tone, all but had us believing that she actually had a vision of Paradise. Both she and soprano Helena Juntunen made the most of short, but evocative, solos. Miss Juntunen and the always marvelous Minnesota Chorale brought the Titan hero – and us- gently into paradise saying, “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du” (Rise again, you will rise again).
Mahler has been accused more than once of being depressing (one friend of mine once sat next to me during a performance of his piano quartet drawing pictures of skulls and gravestones). On the contrary, although he, like most other people, had times of great sorrow, his music transcends and transforms the pain into a sacrifice and makes of the suffering something uplifting. Ultimately, his music contains great hope.
And the audience must have thought so too by the thunderous, sustained applause at the conclusion of the symphony. Curtain call after curtain call proved that there was something here that touched people. And it must have touched the orchestra and chorus as well to propel them to such artistic heights.