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Mahler Resurrected: Gilbert Kaplan Channels The Master

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
12/08/2008 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor: Resurrection
Esther Heideman (Soprano), Janina Baechle (Mezzo-soprano)
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Gilbert Kaplan (Conductor)

Gilbert Kaplan (© Tanja Niemann)

The gifted science writer, Richard Dawkins, wrote a book about evolution with a wonderfully evocative title: Climbing Mount Improbable. This metaphor seems particularly apt as a description of another transformation, as unlikely as it is impressive: the evolution of a young economist, whose experience of music consisted mainly of three years of piano lesson as a child, into an expert on and conductor of (and only of) the music that he loves the most: Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Forty-three years ago, Kaplan was taken by a friend to a rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, to hear Leopold Stokowski conduct Maher’s Symphony Number 2. He returned the next day and bought a ticket, a decision that changed his life forever. Over the next few years, Kaplan became a successful entrepreneur, the founder of a magazine called Institutional Investor. Also during that time, he attended every performance of the symphony that he could track down, finally taking a sabbatical from work for eighteen months so that he could study it in detail. In 1982, seventeen years after that fateful rehearsal, Kaplan, by then a millionaire, hired Avery Fisher Hall for the evening and conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in an invitation only performance. Word of mouth praise followed and an unlikely musical star was born.

Twenty-six years later, Kaplan was back in Avery Fisher Hall, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary – to the day – of the American premiere of this sublime work, a premiere that took place in New York, with Mahler himself conducting. Gilbert Kaplan’s odyssey from Mahler enthusiast to pre-eminent expert on the symphony he adores had hit the popular press in the weeks leading up to the concert. Without question, he was the draw, a fact made clear by the title in the concert program: Kaplan Conducts Mahler. Indeed, many in the packed house had surely come to see and hear the improbable made audible.

While it is Kaplan’s story that has captured the public imagination, it is his self-imposed mission that has led to invitations to conduct the work with fifty-eight different orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony. That mission can be summed up in one word – fidelity.

Kaplan has set out to scrub the score of mistakes and accretions that have accumulated over the years and to lead performances that are absolutely faithful to Mahler’s vision. His rigor was on full display at Avery Fisher Hall; he even took the full five minute break between the first and second movements. The new critical edition, which he co-edited, was the version used for this evening’s performance. Kaplan owns the original score and, during rehearsal, he conducted with Mahler’s baton. It was just as well that he did not use it during the actual performance since the baton he did use broke.

Historically, Mahler has been seen as a rather gloomy fellow who was obsessed with death for reasons having a great deal to do with the circumstances of his own life. He was rather sickly, often worried about his health (in his last years, for good reason). One of his daughters died in childhood, as did seven of his thirteen siblings. The effect of all this on his music is clear; his first composition, a polka written when he was six years old, had a funeral march as an introduction. As does the Resurrection Symphony; Mahler called the first movement Todtenfeier. (Funeral Rite).

Mahler wrote the Todtenfeier in 1888, but it was not until five years later that he returned to the symphony to compose the remaining four movements. During the intervening period, he composed songs for the texts of Das Knaben Wunderhorn -- an anthology of German folk poetry by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano which Mahler had discovered as a child – works that would have a profound influence on his music throughout his career. Indeed, when Mahler resumed work on his second symphony, he used songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn as the basis for its third and fourth movements. The text for latter, scored for contralto solo, is one of the Wunderhorn songs, Urlicht (primal light). The fifth movement incorporates a text, which gave its name to the symphony, Auferstehung (Resurrection), a hymn by the German writer, Klopstock; Mahler heard the hymn at the funeral of conductor, Hans von Bulow, and it was this chance occurrence that gave him the inspiration to complete his symphony.

The result of all of these disparate influences is a work that is metaphysically dense, profoundly stirring, intensely beautiful, and deeply moving. Mahler supplied a program for the symphony but he did so reluctantly. He always resisted any comparison to Richard Strauss, who, he said, wrote music to fit an existing program, while he supplied a program to describe his own absolute music. If this symphony can be said to be about anything, it is about everything – life and death, the quest for meaning, youthful hopes and adult disappointments, tragedy and irony, and, finally, in the last movement, the Christian narratives of the Last Judgment and the Resurrection.

The size of Mahler’s musical resources match the scope of this undertaking – an enormous orchestra that included an organ, a huge chorus and two soloists. When he wanted a tutti, he had the resources to get it and the effect – as in the first and last movements – could be staggering. But more often, particularly in the second, third and fourth movements, where the orchestration is relatively thin and more akin to chamber music, Mahler used his orchestra the way a skilled painter uses his palette. The score is filled with solos – for horns, winds, and brass, and, of course, the breathtakingly beautiful vocal solo, Urlicht, sung with grace and intensity by mezzo-soprano, Janina Baechle. The other soloist, soprano Esther Heidemann, who replaced the indisposed Christina Oelze, sang with lyrical elegance.

The musicians of the Philharmonic, under Kaplan’s baton, played magnificently and the chorus, which evoked the peace and tranquility of a world beyond the travails of this one, was superb. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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