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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Concert Review: Honoring (and Raising) the Dead

Alan Gilbert leads the Philharmonic's 9/11 Memorial Concert
The Rising: Alan Gilbert conducts Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2010 The New York Philharmonic
Music director Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in an expansive performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on Saturday night. The free concert at Avery Fisher Hall was to recognize the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11th. The audience was divided between first responders, survivors, families of those killed, and those music-loving New Yorkers who started lining up in Lincoln Center Plaza at 7am.

The history of the New York Philharmonic is intertwined with Mahler and his Second Symphony, a weighty, 85-minute piece requieing two vocal soloists and a large chorus in its concluding movement. Mahler served as the Philharmonic's music director in the last two years of his life. Another music director, Leonard Bernstein, built his reputation (and Mahler's) with frequent performances of the Resurrecton, often leaping into the air at climactic moments.

Mr. Gilbert didn't leap, but he brought tension and energy to the Totenfeier, the long funeral march that opens the symphony. The growling low strings were answered by the orchestra's brass, establishing a solemn mood and driving up towards a mighty climax. Then the palette lightened, as the strings and wind introduced uplifting melodies that anticipated the work's transcendent finish. When the movement paused before the start of the development, the audience, thinking it was over, applauded the players for a moment.

Gustav Mahler.
The second movement offers contrasting lyricism as the strings stepped lightly through a pastoral andante. Mr. Gilbert then drove hard into the scherzo, an instrumental re-working of the song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt ("St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes") from the song-book Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The orchestra recreated the evangelical efforts of Saint Anthony, who preached to the fishes when no-one else would listen. These two movements represent a farewell of sorts to the good things of earthly life, setting the stage for the cosmic apocalypse to come.

The fourth movement is another Wunderhorn song: "Urlicht." Accompanied by a slow, breathing orchestra, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung rose to sing this text with slow, gravid majesty. The singer spooled out the rich melodic lines, injecting real faith into the poet's plea for redemption amidst the suffering of mankind. The orchestra played Mahler's complex, shifting accompaniment with power, warmth, and a golden flow of sound.

The finale of the Mahler Second is longer than Beethoven's Fifth. It is several movements in one: a massive structure that narrates the revelation, the day of judgement, the last trumpet, and the dead physically rising from their graves and marching up a metaphysical stairway to heaven. And all that happens before the chorus comes in.

The heavy, stentorian opening blared out with emphatic force. Mr. Gilbert drew inspired music-making from the veteran winds and strings, playing the uplifting main themes with emotion missing with some other conductors. But the drive and momentum slowed down in the middle, making Dorothea Roschmann's gorgeous soprano solo sound a little vague. The movement picked up only with the exquisite nightingale-song that announces the arrival of the chorus.

The choral part of this symphony builds slowly, entering with quiet phrases and eventually building to a triumph of the forces of light. The singers seemed to find fresh inspiration as they moved from Klopstock's poem Resurrection into the extended stanzas written by Mahler himself. It was as if the composer's words suddenly brought his dynamic presence to the proceedings. Soprano Dorothea Roschmann and Ms. DeYoung joined the triumphant surge of sound, and this mighty symphony ended with a powerful, rising swell that left the audience, and perhaps the entire city, in an elevated state.

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