Life, Death and Resurrection: Mahler’s Second Symphony

Mahler is a curious composer—a bold visionary whose art is full of contradictions. His guiding philosophy was perhaps best summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1907. 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 quote 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 Brothers Grimm, 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 inner strength and a renewed hope that 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 Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s upcoming performance of it… along with the circumstances that will make this particular performance so meaningful for me. Continue reading

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Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” – Rising from the Ashes

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message.  In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.

It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.

Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology.  Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God?  But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.

Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here.  For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions.  The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.

I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score.  Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better. Continue reading

Brahms’ “A German Requiem”—A Visionary Masterpiece

The Requiem.  The ancient Mass for the Dead.

Few texts have had a more enduring, more profound impact on Western Culture.  Originally sung as part of the funeral rites performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the Requiem is now fused into our collective memory… quietly with us whether we’re Catholic or not.

The impact of the Requiem is particularly clear in Western Music, where settings of the Requiem Mass have formed an important part of choral music from the Middle Ages to today.  A vast number of composers from Palestrina to Andrew Lloyd Webber have penned a Requiem, even if they weren’t Catholic—or particularly religious at all.  It’s easy to see why; the Requiem text, like the ritual it is drawn from, is so broadly recognized that it provides as a easily-understood starting point to explore universal questions of life, death, and life after death.

In composing a Requiem, there are several approaches that composers have taken.  On the one hand, there those that emphasize the dramatic nature of the words, focusing on anger at our loss, the fear of the unknown, or our terror of Final Judgment.  The Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi are the best-known examples of this train of thought.  On the other hand, there are those that emphasize notions of comfort, solace, and a spiritual release as the deceased is gathered up by a merciful God—the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé represent this tradition.  Or, the composer could adopt an “interrupted” approach where outside texts are added in to provide additional reflections or to comment on the traditional liturgy. Benjamin Britten uses this approach in his War Requiem, inserting war poems by Wilfred Owens that provide deeper layers of meaning to the ritualized Latin text, and make a broader statement about the horrors of war.

Still, while these approaches seem very different, they still share a common base—they all focus attention on the deceased individual(s) and place them the center of the unfolding religious drama.  It is a ritual for and about the dead.

How different this is from Brahms’s approach in A German Requiem. Continue reading

Season Openings!

Over the past 48 hours I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being a part of two season openings: those of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale. And the year ahead looks fantastic for both!

Allow me to share a sense of the celebrations, which not only provided outstanding performances, but served as a reminder of the power and importance of music in our community. Continue reading

Season Finale, Season Review

It’s been a week since the finale of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season… a season filled with remarkable achievements that I don’t know I could have imagined at this time last year. And of course, things didn’t end with that final concert… the Orchestra jumped right into a week-long, monster recording session to finish up their album of Sibelius’s Third, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies.

But before it gets any later, I wanted to share my feelings on the final concert, as well as the season as a whole. Continue reading