As someone who hopes to research and write about music for a living, I often get bogged down in dates, facts, theories, and conjecture. Yet despite the fact that I can easily read about music for hours at a time, so often I find that the written word fails to express the truth of being immersed in a work of music. As Felix Mendelsohn wrote, “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” Performing Mahler’s Second Symphony with none other than The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin was indeed an experience too definite for words. But I shall try my best to give you a glimpse into this whirlwind of a week.
Each run-out begins long before the choir steps on stage. We are called to our buses four to twelve hours before the concert or rehearsal begins, depending on where the performance is and what the schedule is for the day. Then, attendance taken and lunches distributed, we depart. After arrival, there is the requisite mad dash to Starbucks, followed by a warm-up with Dr. Miller or Dr. Brandau. Then, like good little ducklings in professional dress, we trek up to the plush choir loft at Kimmel or the stage at Carnegie.
Rehearsals with Yannick are a delightful mix of the unbridled energy of a puppy matched with the musicality of a musician skilled beyond his years. His ability to breathe life into the finest details while guiding the listeners through the work as a whole is truly incredible. In addition to this, the rapport he has with the orchestra is evident in their sensitive responses and overall camaraderie. Rehearsals flit between moments of levity and deep concentration, with an overall intensity befitting the work.
To express our appreciation for his adventurous spirit and humor, we decided to present a Halloween surprise of our own during Friday’s sound check at Carnegie Hall. Entering the stage as normal, we took advantage of brief lull due to the obligatory logistical difficulties that arise when changing performance locations to don our costumes: pictures of Yannick’s face that we held up like masks. Both conductor and orchestra were amused, and took a moment to capture pictures of our trick.
While one could easily slip into autopilot when performing the same work four times in a single weekend, the complexity of Mahler’s Second Symphony is ideally suited for multiple immersions. If you are unfamiliar with the work, a bit of background will help in shedding light on the gravity and depth of this monumental symphony. Written as a reflection on the death of a fictionalized hero, Mahler drew from his own encounters with grief over the course of his life when crafting the work. Having lost multiple siblings and friends at a young age, the rage, disbelief, and agony of his grief are certainly not repressed in the slightest. In some of the louder sections, particularly during the Carnegie Hall performance (in which I was seated only a matter of a feet away from the timpanists and trombone section), the pure physical vibrations emanating from the instruments were so physically jarring, I shook in my seat. Although I personally have never experienced loss on the level that Mahler was inspired by, the primal nature of his writing at these times was so visceral, I felt as if I too was grieving.
The hour and a half long symphony follows the grieving process in a surprisingly mature way for a composer who was only 35 at the time of the work’s premiere. After the intense pain of the first movement, he crafts a folk-like waltz melody to evoke the nostalgia of remembering a lost loved one. After this, the third movement uses a pre-existing song by Mahler about St. Anthony preaching to fish as no one showed up to church to hear his sermon (a tragic fate for any priest, I would imagine) to paint the denial intertwined in the grieving process as well as the dark irony of life. The sinuous duets in the woodwinds (one of my particular favorite parts of the symphony) eventually give way to a reprise of the anguished emotions heard in the first movement. Additionally, this was usually my first cue to start crying.
Out of the ashes of this sorrow emerges the fourth movement: another song setting, this time for mezzo-soprano soloist. Sarah Connelly, our incomparable mezzo, beautifully portrayed this dreamlike vignette of dying and encountering an angel, only to be turned away from heaven before entering. Her unanswered cry for reunion with God segues directly into the final movement, where Mahler provides his final answer. The earlier motives and new ideas expressing agony and disbelief engage in battle, leading into an apocalyptic resurrection scene starring the percussion section. After this, a chilling birdlike conversation in the woodwinds empties the dense orchestral texture, providing a purified sound palate in order for the choir to deliver Mahler’s conclusion on the matters of life, death, and the purpose of human existence: resurrection, and eternal life. I don’t think I can write about this and do it justice without weeping profusely, and I’m fairly certain I’m dehydrated from doing so over the past week so I will abstain from waxing poetic. I will simply say that Mahler proves his point in the most heart-wrenchingly honest way one could ever hope to do so. Transcendent experiences are not everyday occurrences, but this week has given the choir more than our fair share. I am simultaneously exhausted and refreshed, humbled and empowered by this incredible journey.