Friday, June 16, 2017

Mahler’s Resurrection rises again in the Segerstrom


Pacific Symphony at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The Pacific Symphony and Chorale in the Segerstrom Concert Hall.
This performance by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Chorale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’, conducted by PSO Music Director Carl St. Clair, was my first experience of Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and so transparent, vivid and impactful was the sound itself that it’s quite difficult to separate out reactions to the performance per se. Looking online afterward for some background on the building and its architectural and acoustic design, I found encomia from PSO players on how the hall’s acoustics support and enhance their work to an unprecedented degree. As one member put it, "Everybody can just relax and play the way they play."  

Maybe this was partly responsible for the sense of overall ease and responsiveness with which they performed the symphony. In sum, every department of the orchestra covered itself in glory, from the highest piccolo (as when Mahler has three of his four flautists take up the smaller instruments for their climb to a pppp empyrean just before the final choral peroration); to the boldness and security of the huge brass contingent, onstage and off; to the warm and pliant strings; and to the confident unanimity of the numerous percussion, whose biggest moment is the awe-inspiring crescendo, unleashed with maximum effect by Maestro St. Clair, with which Mahler precedes his raucous march to Judgment earlier in the finale.

Mahler at approximately the time of the Second Symphony’s composition.
In its advance publicity, the Pacific Symphony was a bit hyperbolic in describing the Resurrection as ‘the largest symphony ever known at that time’, given that in a spacious performance Beethoven’s Ninth (1818-1825) can almost match it for length and remains comfortably ahead on measure count, while Berlioz’ Symphonie dramatique ‘Roméo et Juliette’ (1839) is some 10 minutes longer and, arguably, an even more radical and imaginative rethinking and expansion of symphonic form and content. Nonetheless, neither matches Mahler’s huge orchestral forces, which out-bulk those of any symphony hitherto and not that many since (and which here were not, so far as I could tell, subject to the unfortunate economies that disfigured the performance of another blockbuster masterpiece that I heard recently in another city).

It’s getting difficult to recall the time when a live Mahler symphony was a rarity, not to mention the sniffy condescension it could meet if a concert management were brave enough to put it on (as noted by Alan Chapman in his entertaining pre-concert talk, referencing Bernstein’s then-pioneering advocacy of Mahler in 1960, the composer’s birth centenary year). Indeed, some would argue that the pendulum has swung too much the other way, with Mahler symphonies now fallback guaranteed crowd-pullers for any orchestra that can muster the requisite number of players.

And the problem for modern Mahler performances is the downside of that very ubiquity. The inevitable feeling of adventure, of danger even, that attended tackling a Mahler symphony back when they were rarities – orchestras grappling with the complexities of huge and difficult scores unknown to many if not all of their members – led to a sense of overcoming all the odds, of hard-won triumph, that nowadays is difficult to recapture given the familiarity of frequent performance. Additionally, to attain the utmost expressive intensity, Mahler builds in a plethora of tempo changes, dynamic indications, and expressive markings, and to downplay or smooth them out risks undermining the essential qualities of extremity – the neuroticism, the schmaltz, the shocks – in the music.

Carl St Clair.
Gratifyingly this rarely happened in Maestro St. Clair’s exceptionally spacious performance (clocking in at just on 90 minutes, vis-à-vis the 80 minutes suggested in the score). Time and again he carefully followed Mahler’s requirements, and it showed. One very sensible decision was to bring on the two soloists (Mary Wilson, soprano, and Margaret Lattimore, mezzo-soprano) in the pause between the intense ‘Funeral Rites’ of the first movement and the utterly contrasted idyll of the second, thereby honoring the spirit if not the absolute letter of Mahler’s extreme request for at least five minutes pause before the Andante moderato (very moderate in this performance) got under way.

The ironic Wunderhorn-derived third movement (‘St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes') was quite fast, sinister and deliciously pointed, though I think the very forward motion somewhat undermined the impact of the tremendous passage near the end when Mahler blows the music sky-high in a fff climax to leave the stage clear for the brief 'Urlicht' ('Eternal Light') fourth movement. Here, Ms Lattimore’s beautifully soft first entry demonstrated almost shockingly how well this hall’s acoustic embraces and projects the voice.

The first choral entry in Mahler’s manuscript.
There’s no space here to detail the many excellences in Maestro St. Clair’s handling of the finale’s long build-up to the once-heard, never-forgotten moment when the choir at last enters (right), hushed and unaccompanied, intoning the opening words of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode (kudos to the management for running English surtitles on the balcony-fronts above the chorus, and also, for once, leaving the hall lighting high enough to enable program-following or score reading!).

Ideally, I suppose, the 130 or so voices of the Pacific Chorale could have been augmented somewhat given the size of the orchestra they are pitted against in their final climax, not to mention the full organ that Mahler piles into the mix here, but they sang with thrilling unanimity, a tribute to their long-time Artistic Director John Alexander whose swan-song these performances were (this was the first of four). He had already been interviewed by Alan Chapman in the pre-concert talk, and was welcomed onstage again with equal fervor alongside Maestro St. Clair and the soloists for their numerous calls from a capacity audience, on its feet and cheering.

P.S. I was surprised in my admittedly fairly cursory Google search afterward that the Segerstrom Hall did not show up amongst ratings of world concert halls by acoustic excellence. In my experience the only one to surpass it is that venerable and magnificent poll-topper, Boston Symphony Hall, while among modern halls its closest match both for acoustics and internal architectural conception is a fellow “rounded shoebox”, Birmingham’s comparably glamorous Symphony Hall (that’s Birmingham, England, not Birmingham, Alabama). I look forward to enjoying its glorious sound many times in the future.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, June 8, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Pacific Symphony and Chorale: courtesy Pacific Symphony; Gustav Mahler; Manuscript score; Carl St Clair.

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