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A Surprising “Resurrection”

Orange County
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
02/23/2007 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection”
The Pacific Symphony, Carl St. Clair (conductor)

Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection” is one of a few great masterpieces in the symphonic literature. In sheer scope, in imagination, in its representation and portrayal of the human spirit and experience, there are few works of art of any kind that achieve this level of emotional depth, triumph and complexity. At watershed events in human history, Mahler’s Second, Beethoven’s Ninth and the great requiems will always help us celebrate and console ourselves. But critics and apologists often make too much of the complex program and history of Mahler Two. If there are stories in the text of the songs and if Mahler intended the music to represent specific scenes or events, those meanings are interesting. But in the case of this symphony, we don’t need to do much research to be fully overwhelmed by its power and beauty. The musical and emotional splendor and architecture overwhelm us completely on their own. As with Beethoven’s Ninth (which has held its place in the canon for perhaps a century longer), many listeners will never learn the meaning of the words but will instantly recognize and be moved by the song. Mahler’s time has come, and the “Resurrection” now holds a unique position in the landscape of musical and human history.

Given the daunting scope and magnitude of this symphony, lesser orchestras usually hesitate to take it on. So this performance by the Pacific Symphony was daring and intriguing. In Cleveland or Vienna or Amsterdam or even Los Angeles, most listeners would be thrilled. But in Costa Mesa, the audience was curious and perhaps a little hesitant. This performance would be a tremendous test for both the Pacific Symphony and the new Cesar Pelli/Russell Johnson concert hall. The large concrete and steel acoustic panel doors were opened wide, with a gap of about six inches on the first two levels and a wider gap on the upper balconies, as if to make the hall larger to accommodate the scope and volume of the sound. As they assembled themselves on and behind the stage, both the orchestra and the chorus seemed huge.

Radio host Alan Chapman came on stage to introduce the background of the piece, describing the density of its program and compositional history, including the Totenfier, the Landler movement, and the “Good St. Anthony” scherzo. He spoke about death, life, belief and the songs from Mahler’s earlier Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Conductor Carl St. Clair made a calm entry but took up the forceful stance of an athlete. The horn calls were steady, slow and deliberate, rock solid, ringing across the mountains. The orchestra, clearly made up of excellent musicians, was perfectly tuned and blended. The musical direction was carefully delineated and precisely measured. Each passage, every line and note was shaped in meticulous detail. The gale force of emotion did not sweep us away, but was trembling there on stage, kept under blistering tension. Surprisingly, the performance felt completely new, reminding me of no other.

As indicated by Mahler, St. Clair chose to take the unusual five-minute pause after the first movement. The second movement was also played with shocking perfection and white knuckled intensity. The Austrian “landler” dance music felt astonishingly graceful and well rehearsed. As St. Clairs’ lieutenant, concertmaster Raymond Kobler often led the strings with force and refinement. The harp and the sea of pizziccatti in the strings were also outstanding. The conductor made minute tempo adjustments, measure by measure.

The third movement scherzo, based on the song “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes” was bouncing and lively, in contrast to the careful precision of the earlier dance. Every detail of every solo felt faultless. Each of the instrumental ensembles played with energetic fire. The flute and the concertmaster excelled. St. Clair was directing an orchestra that belonged to him, that he had nurtured and shaped over the years. I was astounded by how good they were, and wondered what heights they might achieve with more opportunity and support from their community. There have been moments in history when good regional orchestras have leapt above the fray- the City of Birmingham under Simon Rattle came to mind. Part of this phenomenon in Orange County is due to the depth of the musical talent in Southern California, supported by the vast opportunity for musicians to find work in the Hollywood studio system. If one has to think of Orange County as the musical New Jersey of the west coast, this was certainly an extraordinary night. St. Clair conducted with grace and power; he both led and compelled his musicians, but they knew precisely where he was going. The entire experience was strikingly different from an orchestra led by a guest conductor. A week earlier, Christoph von Dohnányi led the LA Philharmonic in the complete series of Brahms symphonies. Dohnányi, with musical roots deep into the earth and decades and decades of experience, led the LA musicians in ethereal renditions of Brahms. But experiencing these strikingly contrasted types of performance helped emphasize how good the Pacific Symphony was that night. Dohnányi was constantly pushing the Philharmonic, telling them what to do with his movements, slowing them down or quieting them, drawing them out. The Pacific Symphony seemed to already know what St. Clair wanted them to do.

In the fourth movement, the orchestral tone was round and deep. Mezzo-Soprano Susan Platts, in the alto role, was a revelation. A protégé of Jessye Norman, the radiant depth and sheen of her tone was so glorious as to be worthy of tears. I remember a performance of Rigoletto at the San Francisco Opera many years ago. The production was good, but the chorus of courtiers was unforgettable, mincing, subtle, devious- they revealed a glimpse of the vicious court of Mantua that was jaw dropping. Susan Platts, in a parallel way, gave a performance that I will never forget. Russell Johnson’s acoustics also performed exquisitely; the clarity and presence of the mezzo-soprano voice was brilliant. The first-rate Pacific Chorale, particularly the bass section, was very well served. The distant horns, positioned in the resonance chambers outside of the hall, were ideal, offering a flawlessly imaged and balanced sound. I can’t wait to hear Bruckner in that hall.

All in all, the Pacific Symphony gave us the real thing. While far from one of the great performances of this great symphony, they offered us moments in it that I had never heard before. St. Clair, who is about to take over the Berlin Komische Oper, took a more 19th century approach than Esa-Pekka Salonen’s more modern treatment of Mahler. He would flick his finger at the cymbal, seeming to draw the note out of thin air, instantaneously. He could use the brass to blow your head off. Orange County and Southern California should consider their great musical fortune more attentively.

Thomas Aujero Small



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