A Night with Mahler

I had the pleasure of listening to Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, Resurrection, at Jack Singer Concert Hall, and I have to say, it was a wonderful performance by the Calgary Philharmonic orchestra (CPO.) The ability of the orchestra in capturing the multitude of emotions that Mahler employs in his masterpiece was exceptional. There was moments of sadness, anger, joy, remorse, and fear. I had not listened to his piece fully till tonight, and with it being the last symphony for 2019, it was quite the emotional roller coaster.

The 2nd Symphony was composed by Gustav Mahler somewhere between 1888 and 1894, and is regarded as one of the greatest symphonies of all time. Rune Bergmann and company exclaimed their excitement at performing Resurrection, and the excitement extended to the city of Calgary as both nights had the largest attendance of the year at the Jack Singer. There are five movements in Resurrection, with music ranging in percussion, wind instruments, brass, the various string instruments, and vocals by the Calgary chorus and renowned singers Iwona Sobotka and Edna Prochnik. The strings take center stage throughout, but as soon as the choir steps in, along with Prochnik and Edna, they sit back and accompany the plethora of emotion the singers imbue with their voices.

The 1st movement reminds me of a ship at sea, traversing through treacherous waters, finding peace in between the torrential downpour. It will certainly take you on a ride, with the emotions going up and down, like a shifting mood. It is actually a piece he wrote before Resurrection and Mahler wanted to include it in some way, as his original composition was considered “… not music.” by the pianist Hans von Bülow. I found that the movements of Resurrection alluded to religion and God, with the verses including God’s name, particularly in the 4th and 5th movement. However, I am not certain if Mahler was religious by any stretch. The reason I wonder is the moment in the 4th movement where the Soprano singer recites these lines, in German that is:

“I am from God and shall return to god! The loving God will grant me little light, which will light me into that eternal blissful life.”

After which, the orchestra was bombastic, with energy and emotions seething in hatred, in anger. I wonder what his aim was? I suspect Mahler was using condescension and irony to express himself. See, Mahler converted to Catholicism because of the Antisemitism he experienced living in Austria, and since the majority of the population was Catholic, he converted as a way to be accepted. So, to fully submit to god would actually be your downfall, could be what his music is suggesting.

The theme of Mahler’s 2nd symphony is death and returning to life, with moments in the 2nd and 3rd movements recalling a wondrous time while alive, times of yearning and loss, and the joys of what the afterlife could be. I was wrought with emotion as the music played as I mused – along with the music – on my own life. It was as if Mahler were speaking to me through his music, to “Rise again” and “To die is to be alive.” The beauty of the symphony is how much emotion is contained in his written work. I felt like the man mentioned in the 4th movement, where he feels pain and needs help. I related with the feelings of God as well.

To fully submit to god, it is a comforting thing, I get it. My years as a Catholic says that he lessens our worries, and if we repent and right our wrongs, we will be absolved of any wrongdoing, and can continue on to heaven to be greeted with open arms. Likely, the theme in the symphony “To die is to live again,” also carries another: to cast yourself unto God and be born anew. It screams of this throughout the 4th and 5th movements.

However, I think Mahler tackles this idea of casting yourself onto a religion through his Resurrection symphony, and asks questions of faith through song and opera. The romanticism of God being the one true love to unite us was satirical I think, with the irony of such verses being followed up with anger in his music. Is submitting yourself completely to the mercy of another the way to return to life?

The last movement finishes with these lines:

“Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!”

What did he mean by this? The beauty of admiring art is trying to interpret it, and to find meaning, even when it may not exist. I look at the piece as death of a self-destructive trait in order to bring about something new, or with our long-withheld self that we decide to bring to the light. I think Mahler uses God and religion because it is a common practice among the society of his time, and is readily available for reference. And considering the hostility he faced being Jewish, perhaps he was not only trying to fit in, but also striking back at his oppressors. Still, when you hear of inmates finding God after committing felony after felony, suddenly finding peace and love, you can see that it can be about ridding yourself of something in order to live again.

I wonder now if it comes down to a warm pat on the shoulder, saying “You are doing alright, keep going.”

The symphony was made that much more enjoyable through Rune Bergmann’s movement while guiding the orchestra. He was spectacular, and the musicians were amazing. The Soprano singers Iwona Sobotka and Edna Prochnik (whom by the way flew in from Poland and Israel respectively,) along with the Calgary Chorus really brought the emotions up a level from the already heightened one set by the philharmonic. I would highly recommend the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra for another performance again.

Afterwards, the crowd roared with an applause that continued for what seemed like ages. My hands and forearms were fatiguing from all the clapping. But it was deserved praise for Bergmann and company.

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