There are occasions in the life of a student which demand much more that is usually expected for the successful completion of course work – a research project, a voyage, a dissertation – and which continue to bear fruit long after academia is left behind. In the history of the North Carolina School of the Arts, now a university, there are a handful – the ballet production of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps in the 1970s, Leonard Bernstein’s visit and concert which opened the Stevens Center, Béla Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin in concert, Brigadoon with Jennifer Welch, and most recently, a momentous performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony in C minor, subtitled the "Resurrection Symphony."
Mahler is once to have said “My time will come,” and come it did, this evening in the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in downtown Winston-Salem. With an orchestra of over a hundred students of all ages, brass in the balcony, chorus in the audience, powerful soloists, a venerable Maestro and most of all, the musical genius of young Gustav Mahler, this was an evening that will be remembered, certainly by the audience, but mostly by the performers, many moved to tears, but all aware of that hallowed moment of work well done. The chorus, when it turned around to confront the audience with the final powerful “Aufersteh’n; ja, aufersteh’n” (“Rise again; yes, rise again!”) was filled with the awe of the moment and their faces with the nakedness of the raw emotion of complete attention and absorption.
The symphony is monumentally long; the first movement lasts over 20 minutes and the last over half an hour. Otherwise, as originally planned, the symphony resembled the model established by Beethoven in his “Ninth” – grandiose opening movement, monumental closing movement with soloists and chorus. But Mahler, after finishing the orchestration of the last movement, decided to add a lied (song) between the scherzo and the Finale, fortunately for us, for it gave us a chance to hear the beautiful mezzo-soprano voice of Stacey Rishoi, warm and tender and impeccably in tune. Her song, "Urlicht" ("Primal light"), describes the longing of Man to return to God’s light. She is joined by Jodi Burns, UNCSA soprano, in the last movement. Burns is familiar to UNCSA audiences because she has been featured in a number of major roles in the last three years as a Fletcher Opera Institute fellow. Hers is also a beautiful voice, powerful and versatile.
A quarter of a century ago (I was present), a famous conductor and teacher, Max Rudolf, asked his class of mentorees why Mahler was so popular with conductors. This was at a time when one heard Mahler symphonies frequently on the radio, before Public Radio Stations decided that “on the hour” news format pre-empted long compositions. Rudolf had concluded that Mahler’s popularity with conductors stemmed from the freedom conductors felt to make their version personal and unlike other conductors’ interpretations and yet have the piece still work!
Maestro John Mauceri imparted his own style on this successful performance. Perhaps more concerned with the logistics of keeping the large array of musicians together, he chose to lead with impeccable clarity the numerous tempo and mood changes, perhaps sacrificing the extreme soft passages for safety’s sake. For example, the first entrance of the Chorus, which is marked “A cappella (unaccompanied), Misterioso, PPP (as soft as possible),” came in un-mysteriously “loud and clear.” Other events beyond the immediate control of Maestro Mauceri were perpetual intonation problems in the otherwise brilliant trumpets and in the soft bassoon passages. There was some brilliant playing by the principal flute (James Miller) and the concertmaster, Felix Chen, and the principal trumpet, Kiah Abendroth. And kudos to the entire horn section!
This concert will be repeated on April 25 at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh with the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chapel Choir. See our calendar for details.