The Cape Cod Symphony will present Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony for its fiftieth anniversary concert on May 5 and 6, with a chorus composed of members of the Chatham Chorale and the Falmouth Chorale. Charles Bihler shares how Mahler’s great work touched him as a teenager, and continues to sustain him on a musical (and romantic!) journey from Eugene Ormandy to Jung-Ho Pak.
It was the fall of 1956 and the Rutgers University Choir was beginning a new season. As a freshman the previous year, I leapt from an average high school choir experience to the thrill of participating in two concerts with the Baltimore Symphony, the second of which was Carl Orff’s lusty Carmina Burana─ an appropriate sing for a testosterone-ridden boy. I was giddy in this new world of choral-orchestral masterpieces.
In a conversation with my choir director, I ventured that nothing could top the Carmina experience. I was immediately dispatched to the Music House record library where I listened dutifully to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony. A few months later, we were to perform the symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy. Little did I know that the encounter in the record library would be the start of an exciting and lasting relationship with Gustav Mahler and his stirring musical portrayal of the human experience. It is a relationship that contributed immensely to my maturation as a person and that has nurtured Catherine’s and my music-filled marriage.
Mahler’s world included popular German poetry, dating back as far as the Middle Ages. According to Mahler’s pupil, Bruno Walter, it was a world “of fair maidens and errant knights, of forlorn sentinels and ghostly drummers, of moon lit castles and bewitched forests, of love’s joy and sorrow.” I was drawn into that world as I sat in the chorus bleachers for the Philadelphia Orchestra performance, and again the following year at Carnegie Hall when I attended Bruno Walter’s last concert as a conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Two unforgettable performances followed years later with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and with William Steinberg and the Pittsburg Symphony.
For those who are not familiar with the Resurrection Symphony, it has a design in common with the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. It is a long work, with several movements. In the last, the chorus rises to provide a building-rattling climax with words from Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock's ode Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). The ode ends with the words, “I shall die to live. You will rise again, my heart, in a moment and be borne up, through struggle, to God!”
Years after my teenage encounter with Mahler, Catherine and I, both now single and dating, discovered that Mahler’s second symphony was our favorite piece of music. Catherine had never sung it, which was unsurprising since performances are quite rare given the enormous resources required.
As we approached our tenth wedding anniversary, I read that Zubin Mehta, one of Catherine’s favorite conductors, was bringing the Israel Philharmonic to Carnegie Hall to perform the work. The idea for an anniversary gift hit me like lightning. I called the vocal contractor who had Catherine in her little black book, but found that she was not hiring the chorus (the New York Choral Artists) for that concert. She did know the contractor to contact. A few favors were exchanged, and we were added to the chorus. It was a gift I could never again equal.
To sing the Resurrection is a visceral experience. The September 2004 performance with the Cape Cod Symphony under Royston Nash was Catherine’s and my first singing experience together on Cape Cod and it seemed likely to be the last Mahler we would sing in our lifetimes. Now, to our delight, the occasion has arrived to sing this great Mahler work with the Cape Cod Symphony under the direction of Jung Ho Pak.
After a lifetime of singing, I can still never get over the experience of singing this emotional, mystical, colorful, and powerful work. If you hear or sing it for the first time in May, I hope you will feel the same.
Charles Bihler is Membership Chair of the Chatham Chorale, and husband of the gifted soprano Catherine Bihler.
For ArtistsAndMusicians' recommended Mahler links, or to join the conversation, please click here: More on Mahler