Grant Park Music Festival Presents Mahler’s RESURRECTION SYMPHONY—Ending the Season Well
The Grant Park Music Festival comes to an end for this summer, finishing it's 85th season, presenting only one piece this evening-- Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, Resurrection-- using a large orchestra, huge chorus and two women soloists.
This is a symphony that takes one to deeper spiritual places than one is accustomed to going. Thinking not just about death but asking difficult questions like: what exactly happens after death - is this really the end or is there a judgment? do you get to go to heaven? Is there really a God? and similar questions many of us would usually rather avoid.
The hour and a half performance, divided into five movements, gave some time to consider hard questions. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) born Jewish, became a Catholic as an adult. And though it appeared he was baptized into the Christian faith to get a conducting job, living as he did in the anti-Semitism of the late 19th century, we obviously can't know his inner questions and struggles. We do know he suffered-- losing siblings at a young age. And, being diagnosed with a seriously limiting and threatening heart condition in his 30s, he faced his own mortality quite early in life.
Mahler struggled spiritually his entire life to maintain faith and hope and probably agonized over what to believe. Though he was primarily known as a conductor during his life much more than a composer, personally he always valued composing more than conducting, maybe as a way to work through weighty questions.
Begins Deep and Dark
The first movement begins in deep melancholy C minor, the cellos and basses creating a deep, dark mood that would be a good soundscape for film noir. Though there are moments of uplift with major, more pleasant sections, this opening movement sets the stage for moving on through the symphony as it began, but ever softer and quieter, more deep and profound.
Wisely lifting the mood of the symphony, the second movement is more nostalgic with pleasant memories of his childhood in Austria. Though beautifully expressed in a simple folk song, there are sudden interruptions to the idyllic Austrian beauty with scary, loud episodes in the music, maybe mirroring the losses he endured as a child.
The third movement, called Scherzo (which means a joke) tries to be uplifting but again experiences interruptions of real life chaos and grief suddenly jumping into the music. This is certainly a symphony in which the listener doesn't lose interest and drift off. It’s so varied-- it's anything but boring.
Deeper into Darkness
In the 4th movement, Urlicht ("Primal light") we go deeper into profundity because the mezzo soprano stands up and sings (in German, so reading the translation in the program is essential to understand the meaning) how “..man lies in deepest need.... in deepest pain. Much would I rather be in heaven!...” But later in the poem “Dear God will give me a light, will illuminate me into eternal, blessed life!..” Expressively sung by J'nai Bridges, this poem expresses hope that this is not the end, and that God will ultimately bring understanding.
The Grant Park Music Festival Chooses Work to End Season with Uplifting Conclusion
We learn from the program notes that when Mahler was working on this symphony, a difficult six year endeavor, he struggled with how to finish the story without seeming trite. About this time in early 1894 Mahler's close friend and mentor Hans van Bulow died. At the emotional memorial service at Hamburg's St. Michael's Church, Mahler and a friend were present at the moving farewell. The friend, Josef Forster described the strongest impression to remain for them was that of the singing of a children's choir. They sang Klopstock's profound poem [Auferstehen-- 'Resurrection'] and the purity and innocence of their voices apparently gave Mahler what he needed to finish the symphony.
The victorious fifth movement starts dark, but then one hears distant-sounding offstage trumpets and heroic horn players announcing the great judgment of God. Now the 165-voice choir which has been waiting this entire symphony to sing, cries out, “What has passed away must rise! Cease trembling! Prepare yourself to live!” The soprano Amanda Majeski and the mezzo soprano Ms. Bridges gloriously sang together “Oh death! You that overcome all things, now you are overcome!” And finally the soloists and chorus together with the orchestra finish the symphony singing at full volume “…rise again, yes you will rise again my heart.... what you have conquered will carry you to God!”
What a profound ending to a great symphony and a magnificent season by the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra!
Though this was the final concert of the Grant Park Music Festival's 2019 10-week season, concerts will resume June 10, 2020. For more information visit the Grant Park Music Festival website.
Editor’s Note: Read more reviews of the 2019 Grant Park Music Festival—
All photos by Norman Timonera
About the Author:
Mark Lindeblad is a working pianist and bassoonist in Chicagoland. He received the Bachelor's of Music performance degree, bassoon major, piano minor from Wichita State University in 1978 and the Master's of Music performance degree in bassoon from Roosevelt University in 1983 in Chicago. While doing piano accompanying was always happening on the side from high school and college years, it stepped up to be Mark’s primary occupation in the 1990's. Today he is a piano accompanist at Glenbard South High School, and plays principal bassoon in the Southwest Symphony, and also finds time for about 20 private students studying either bassoon or piano. For more information, visit Mark Lindeblad’s website: www.markspianostudio.com