The new Minnesota Orchestra season is nearly upon us, and I couldn’t be more excited!
Well, Let me clarify. Like many out there, it’s not just excitement that I’m feeling, but rather a huge range of emotions. There is absolute elation that after two galactically bad years of lockouts and struggle, we have Osmo and our orchestra back. There is humble gratitude for the collective effort that has gone into the rebuilding, and for the extraordinarily generosity of the anonymous donors who just gave more than $13 million to help the organization recover. And there is elation at being able to perform onstage with my friends again, in a work that will blow everyone’s collective socks off.
But these positive emotions are tempered with nervous relief that the Metropolitan Opera just barely dodged a similar bullet and will no doubt continue to face difficulties ahead.
And, there is a complex mixture of sorrow and rage that our musician friends in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are experiencing a lockout of their own. Worse, they’ve been locked out by a management that seems to have learned the tactics of a lockout from what happened here, without having the wisdom to see how bad the results were when this same approach was attempted in Minneapolis.
So how to express this unwieldy explosion of contradictory emotions?
Well… through the music of Gustav Mahler, of course.
Mahler is a curious composer. His guiding philosophy was summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. As Sibelius recounted later,
“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)
That perfectly captures essence of Mahler’s music. It is a collision of thoughts, emotions, ideas and sensations that are constantly intersecting and interacting with each other. At times, it’s as if you were reading a story where each paragraph was written by a different author in a different style—such as Shakespeare followed by the Grimm Brothers, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Herodotus and O. Henry.
In the end, the cumulative effect is stunning, touching on all parts of the human experience… and vividly recreating the totality of human experience. It is no wonder why so many love his music.
Mahler’s music isn’t at all hard to listen to, but it is a wonderfully challenging to fully comprehend it. It rewards—if not requires—repeated listening and conversations to grasp its many layers.
The Second Symphony, Resurrection, is a magnificent example of Mahler’s achievement… and one of the easiest to get your arms around. It is a work about loss and a plunge into darkness… before finding strength and hope, which allows you to rise to a new level of existence greater you had known before. It is about rebirth and new glory.
And it absolutely has to be experienced live.
Let me explain a bit about why you don’t want to miss Osmo, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s performance of it.
* * *
The dramatic first movement begins with death, and the visceral, human response to this death.
It is a ferocious cry of grief in all its many forms. The music takes on the character of a march, but one that is broken and unsteady. Tempos and rhythms are disjointed, and grate across each other in fury. There is violence that sometimes appears to be focused back on oneself—or on the lost loved one. But there are also quieter moments of reflection and regret that seem to lament lost chances or roads not taken. Altogether these form a rich tapestry that forms not just a wail of raging grief, but represents a search to find some meaning out of the tragedy. Some hope for a resolution, even if we can’t envision a resolution at the moment.
As Mahler himself wrote of this movement:
“Now in this moment of gravity and of emotion which convulses our deepest being, our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice which always passes us by in the deafening bustle of daily life: What now? What is this life — and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning? — And we must answer this question if we are to live on.”
At the end of the movement, Mahler called for an extensive pause, which allows the performers and audience to reset, and work through this question through the following movements.
The second movement is subdued, a pull-back from the fierce emotions of its predecessor. In a moment of calm, the central character reflects on the lost loved one with a sense of affection, pride, and remembered joy. It is almost—almost—as if the departed loved one is still alive, untouched by tragedy, and is almost banal in his or her ordinariness. Mahler remarked that for him, this movement was “an image of a long-dead hour of Happiness.”
The third movement is a twisted, sardonic parody of the previous movement. It strikes me as being that moment in your grief where, after hours or days of tense, oppressive grief… you snap. Suddenly you burst out in a bout of totally inappropriate laughter or do something utterly ridiculous. In the movie Amadeus, there is a moment where Mozart, who has been obsessively working on his Requiem, looks up at a portrait of his stern, recently-departed father and hits his breaking point. He sticks out his tongue, sneers, and begins a mocking dance around the room to exorcise his demons of grief. And that is the feeling Mahler conjures up.
But it is also a revolt against the meaningless of life. It’s reminiscent of asking yourself, How can people be going about their business at a time like this? Don’t they know what happened? Don’t they know it’s all futile anyway? Mahler wrote:
“When you awaken from the nostalgic daydream [of the preceding movement] and you return to the confusion of real life, it can happen that the ceaseless motion, the senseless bustle of daily activity may strike you with horror. Then life can seem meaningless, a gruesome, ghostly spectacle, from which you may recoil with a cry of disgust!”
These thoughts are quickly and decisively swept away by the fourth movement, which starts the long journey to healing and light. It also introduces the human voice in the tender song “Urlicht,” which provides a luminous call of hope. It is a moment out of time that gives me shivers every time I hear it. It is a glimpse, all too fleeting, of the infinite. You will scarcely be able to breathe.
This leads to the mighty fifth, and final movement. I’ve long thought that the emotional and musical range of this movement is so vast that it could stand alone as an entire self-contained symphony. The momentary vision of hope is swept away as the grief and horror of the first movement come crashing back in. If the first movement was a cry of grief, this is a cry of despair that believes healing is impossible. It is a thunderous cry to heaven for answers.
And then… the answer is given.
The movement is cut through by a remarkable moment—the so-called “Great Call.” This is a multi-layered fanfare beyond all definitions of a fanfare, with brass and other instruments calling out from all parts of the hall. It demands attention. It suppresses all sound. And once all has been stilled, it fades into nothingness.
What follows is perhaps one of the most riveting moment in all music.
With a sound that is felt more than it is actually heard, the chorus enters—softer than you can believe possible.
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du, Rise again, yes you will rise again,
mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh: my dust, after a short rest:
Unsterblich Leben Immortal life
wird der dich rief dir geben. will He who called you grant to you.
From there, the chorus begins a celestial hymn of resurrection that calls on us to leave behind the past and to emerge far greater that we were before: uplifted, healed, and reborn to true greatness. Solo voices join the choir and soar in Mahler’s own words of affirmation: “O believe, you were not born in vain! Have not lived, suffered in vain!” With greater assurance and resolution, the chorus continues its song… building to a triumphant conclusion that will make the walls tremble. In the closing pages, Mahler brings us to his vision of the final triumph of the soul, with bells pealing and chorus calling out, “Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben: I shall die, so as to live!”
It is a transcendent moment that no recording or broadcast can ever match. You will feel your soul soar.
* * *
Beyond the greatness of the music, this concert will be supremely meaningful to me for two other reasons. The first I have already recounted when the season was first announced. Forgive me if you’ve seen this, but it bears repeating.
October of 2013 was for me the lowest point of the whole ugly labor dispute; I suspect many others feel the same way, too. Behind the scenes, we in the Minnesota Chorale had been asked by the Orchestra’s management to hold the first weekend in October open—the goal was to perform in the grand re-opening of Orchestra Hall on those dates, should the labor dispute be resolved in time.
Two weeks before the performance, we got official notification that the concert had been cancelled.
Seeing how the dispute had gone up to that point, we had anticipated that might be the case. Thus, we launched a “plan B”—to perform a concert of our own that same weekend. Two weeks was not enough time to prepare full-length concert of our own, however. But to my ever-lasting gratitude, the other major choruses in town rushed into the breach, and we collectively agreed to perform a “season preview” concert which each chorus presenting 15 to 20 minutes of music from their upcoming performances.
Well and good… but something else happened at the same time.
Osmo Vänskä told the Orchestra’s management that if the dispute was not resolved by October 1, and his upcoming concerts at Carnegie Hall were cancelled, he would be forced to resign. As we all know, the dispute was not resolved, the Carnegie concerts were cancelled, and Osmo was forced to resign. An emotional week followed, capped by a series of concerts on the Friday and Saturday of that week where Osmo conducted the locked-out musicians in a gut-wrenching, farewell concert (my description of that legendary concert can be found here).
The next day, we presented our impromptu choral concert. And that was… tough.
When it was our turn to perform, our Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey stepped to the microphone and gave a few introductory remarks—thanking the wonderful choruses who had come together to make the concert possible, and thanking the community for its support of great music. She then broke down, and in tears introduced our performance piece: the choral finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection. She dedicated it to Osmo and our friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Orchestra, in the hope that they, too, could rise up from this tragedy, and that one day we all might be able to perform together again.
And now this wish is coming true. And judging how emotional I have gotten just typing that out, I’m fairly sure I’m going to be a wreck on stage.
The second reason this concert is so meaningful to me because the symphony completely encapsulates the feelings that so many of us have had over the last few years, as the lockout threatened to destroy our orchestra. It is almost too predictable to read Mahler’s Second Symphony as a metaphor of the near-death and resurrection of the Minnesota Orchestra.
But I don’t care if it’s cliché. It’s true. The fact that we are able to have this concert is, for me, a powerful testimony of how our community stood together, fought for our Orchestra and saw it reborn.
And so, this performance will have extra resonance. There is no way we performers on stage will be able to disguise our emotions as we take this journey hand in hand with you, the audience. With every note you hear, you will experience those same emotions with us; and you will understand the value of having great artists bring great art to life. This is not a recording. This is not an unknown group giving you eight bars of generic “sadness.” It is great artists—your artists—living their art for you to experience.
And that is what will make this performance so remarkable.
Do not miss that opportunity. Make sure you order your tickets before they’re all gone.
One final thought. I understand that one of the musicians from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will be a substitute player for these concerts—a move brought about by the lockout happening there.
Most of us will relate to the Second Symphony’s finale… the glorious music of resurrection and triumph. This musician, sadly, will probably relate more with the symphony’s opening, trapped in the first stages of loss and fear.
In my own way, I want to dedicate part of my performance to this visiting musician, to show that there is hope.
We rose again through the support of our many friends. And now, we will support you.
I want to carry a message of healing, and the assurance that we will work to ensure the light and healing Mahler describes will come again to Atlanta, too.
See you at the concert.