Plaque on Mahler's Vienna apartment, 2-Auenbruggerstrasse. "Gustav Mahler lived and composed in this house from 1898 to 1909"
I had the unbelievably good fortune to sing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1991 – 2008, which meant that I got to sing virtually all the great choral-orchestral works, led by our resident music directors and guest conductors, including greats like Masur and Norrington. A typical season (1994-95 in this case) might include Mahler Symphony No. 8, Rachmaninoff The Bells, Janacek Glagolitic Mass, Handel Messiah, Britten War Requiem, Bernstein Chichester Psalms, Beethoven Missa Solemnis, and a semi-staged version of Fidelio. Oh, plus a Christmas choral repertoire concert. (OK, that was a big season!)
Because Michael Tilson Thomas, our music director from 1995 on, is a noted Mahlerian, it also meant that the Resurrection Symphony would roll around every few years. My first was 1992 under Herbert Blomstedt, the second, fourth, and fifth with MTT (including a 2004 recording). Somewhere in there was a terrific rendition with the Youth Orchestra. It must have amounted to 15 or more separate performances in all.
Like Charles, I have favorite memories from these shows. Not all of them stirring and uplifting: part of the challenge of singing pianissimo-to-full-out at the tail end of a 70-minute work is physical preparation while you’re sitting there. We were coached to tighten/release glut muscles, get saliva going by poking our tongues around our mouths, and start diaphragm breathing 10 minutes before our “stand” cue—all invisibly to the audience, of course.
But what always strikes me in this panoramic sound journey through life, death, and life eternal is how personal it feels despite its scope. Choral singing is an emotional pastime, and if you’ve sung with a group for long enough, you’ll have shared major life passages with fellow singers. The music we sing always resonates to this experience—and no work more than this one. I listen to “Urlicht,” the shimmering mezzo song that stops all the thunder about two-thirds along … as performed by the incomparable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who was dead two years after we recorded M2. Or in the last movement, when she sings with such urgency “O glaube, mein herz” (“O believe, my heart … that you have not lived in vain”), my own heart swells—no other way to describe it. I look at the photo in the CD booklet of principal clarinet David Breeden, who played with such pristine yet feeling tone and was gone a few years later. I think of Mich Steacy, one of our sopranos who passed suddenly and shockingly in the middle of a concert run. And of others, from in and outside my musical life. And they are present.
Was entstanden is, das muss vergehen! Was verganen, auferstehen!
(“What has been created must pass away! What has passed away must rise again!”)
The chorus sings those words. Mahler 2 embraces death and embodies resurrection as completely as any music you’ll ever hear. It will reach you on that level, I promise. And you’ll be glad you were there.