An Inspired Mahler 2nd from the Canton Symphony
By Tom Wachunas
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.2 (Resurrection): Christine Brandes (soprano), Lucille Beer (contralto), combined choruses, Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 11/4/2012 www.cantonsymphony.org
“…It struck me like a thunder bolt and everything stood clear and vivid before my soul. The creator waits for this lightning flash; this is his ‘holy annunciation’.” –Gustav Mahler-
Looking back on the several years I’ve been reviewing performances by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), I don’t recall a concert (other than an opera) with just a single work on the program. The November 4 concert featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection), a stand-alone work if ever there was one. In his introductory comments, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann reverently reminded a very packed Umstattd Hall that the evening was dedicated to the memory of Rachel Renkert (1938-2007) - a beloved, seminal visionary in forming the CSO into the vibrant organization it is today. The Mahler was her favorite symphonic work.
Zimmermann also asked that we hear the work as a total unit and to withhold our applause after the long first movement, which was followed by an intermission. Obliging Zimmermann’s request was difficult. For the orchestra had just successfully delivered the electrifying and otherwise soul-rattling drama of Mahler’s outrage at the inevitability of death. The performance was one of those classically cathartic encounters that could cause one to approach total strangers, shake them unapologetically by the shoulders, and gush, “Do you believe what we just heard!?” And that was only the beginning.
What followed the intermission continued to be a wondrously compelling rendition of Mahler’s intense probing of humanity’s most perplexing existential questions. The flawless, gently muted plucking of strings was utterly mesmerizing in the achingly graceful remembrance of life’s fleeting joys symbolized in the Andante movement. Then, in the Scherzo, the mood became subtly wicked as the orchestra played a bizarre waltz, effectively conveying frustration with the meaningless drudgeries of everyday life. With deeply lustrous, haunting tones, guest soloist Lucille Beer delivered a return to godly faith in the fourth movement contralto song, Urlicht (Primal Light).
Soaring, crystalline soprano voicings by fellow guest soloist Christine Brandes made the choral finale of the fifth movement – Mahler’s ultimate embrace of hope and resurrection – all the more radiant. The movement’s hushed beginning swelled into a magnificently sonorous declaration powered by the combined forces of five local choruses, numbering around 200 voices: Canton Symphony Chorus, Malone University Chorale, University of Mount Union Concert Choir, Walsh University Chamber Choir, and Wooster Chorus. Ye angels in the heavens, be jealous.
Particularly remarkable throughout the evening was that ineffable unity of orchestral focus and purpose. You simply know it when you hear and indeed see it. This is a monumental work, sprawling in emotional and ideological scope, replete with sumptuous crescendos and deafening orchestral blasts. They seemingly erupt from nothing and recede just as quickly into solemn, mystical whispers. All of the players appeared to be rapturously caught up in this sublimely embroidered aural tapestry.
In the end, I was left marveling at what could rightfully be called Mahler’s Promethean accomplishment. How could a mere mortal create a fiery symphonic phenomenon such as this? Likewise, CSO seems to have transcended itself, rising to spectacular new heights by triumphantly rekindling Mahler’s impassioned vision of eternal life.