WHAT A WAY to end a season! Daniel Stewart took the Santa Cruz Symphony to places many of its musicians had never been before, namely Gustav Mahler’s colossal “Resurrection” Symphony. The work calls for a huge orchestra—ideally with a lot more strings than Santa Cruz can sustain—a large chorus, soprano and alto soloists (pictured above), an offstage ensemble of brass and percussion, theater organ and no shortage of special sound effects. This five movement work, that took a total of 90 minutes performance time, is a movie in sound, an epic journey from death to resurrection that goes far beyond the confines that nevertheless still trace back to the 18th century classical models of Haydn, Mozart and, especially, Beethoven.
And therein lies its design success, its coherence of architecture. Themes and rhythms from its first four movements are recombined in its finale, which alone took a full 40 minutes. Stewart conducted the work entirely from memory, his body language both leading and reacting to every detail of its sprawling pageant.
Mahler composed the work in three stages. The first movement, called Totenfeier (Funeral Rite), dates from 1888, to programmatically honor the ‘hero’ of his First Symphony. (The First and Second Symphonies can be considered a twin pair, not unlike the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies; see our Weekly Magazine this week for a performance of the latter by the London Symphony Orchestra.) The second and third movements were composed in 1893. It wasn’t until he heard the ode Auferstehn (Resurrection) by the 18th century poet Friedrich Klopstock that he found the solution he needed to complete the symphony, a choral piece that was plainly inspired by the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (The Klopstock opens with the line, “Auferstehn, ja auferstehn wirst du, Mein Staub” Resurrect, yes you will rise again my dust.) Mahler then added his own poetical text that makes Klopstock’s mystical sentiments more personal; the final movement was completed in 1894.
He then recycled two of his previously set songs, Urlicht (Primeval Light) and Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (St Anthony Preaches to the Fishes), from the folkloric collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, probably composed also in 1893. The first became the intimate, five-minute fourth movement, for alto and orchestra, a description of Mankind’s need and pain and yearning for heaven. The second dispenses with the amusing text in favor of an intensely ominous ‘march’ in ¾ time, ländler-style, that undergoes a series of ever-larger climaxes, the last so terrifying that the ‘march’ never quite recovers its forward momentum.
After the Totenfeier, the trickiest movement is the last one. For one thing, it has several full stops which divide the piece into sections, or moments, the bits drawn from the earlier movements. (Even so, the progression never loses its sense of continuity.) This is also where the offstage instruments must coordinate with what’s happening on stage. To achieve this, Nathaniel Berman conducted the largest of these offstage contingents in the lobby of the Mello Center with the doors of the auditorium (on Sunday) opened for the desired musical effect and also to allow Berman to see Stewart’s cues. This dialog began with a broadly stentorian ‘call to judgment’ on the solo horn, played by Wayne Van Lieu, in the lobby. As the movement drew ever closer to its inevitable final climactic conclusion, trumpets in the balcony and the wings added to the spatial clamor.
Contralto Sara Couden (right, in the photo) sang Urlicht, and for the last 15 minutes of the performance, joined soprano Gabriella Reyes de Ramírez—powerful voices both—and Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus for the Resurrection poems, rising together in a radiant glory of hope for life everlasting. It is this Christian promise that no doubt accounts in part for the popularity of this symphony, a popularity that far overshadows that of the many other Mahler masterpieces.
The Symphonic Chorus, inspired and highly disciplined Santa Cruz Symphony musicians and their talented music director Daniel Stewart collectively went out on a limb for this extremely challenging work—full as it is with contradictory rhythms, ambiguous tonalities, weird counterpoint and such jokes as the comical pizzicato episode in the second movement.
With it, they ended their 60th Anniversary season by raising their own bar even higher. As for Mahler, happily they will perform his Fourth Symphony on the opening program of their 61st season. Meanwhile, as I write this, the “Resurrection” Symphony continues to echo in my ears. I can’t get it out of my head, and I don’t want it to.