Is there any greater goose bump inducer than Mahler's Second Symphony? Beethoven's Ninth, perhaps, or Hallelujah from Handel's Messiah. But it is the Mahler I think of when I think of transformational concert hall experiences, those moments that stay vivid in the memory for a lifetime.
I'm not alone, apparently, for Mahler's Resurrection Symphony seems to be programmed by orchestras all over the world to mark special occasions. For the Dallas Symphony, the Mahler Second featured prominently in the opening fortnight concerts of the Meyerson Symphony Center in 1989, under the baton of Music Director Eduardo Mata. Then, a few days later, the work opened the 1989 _90 classical subscription season. A live recording of one of those performances thrillingly captures that milestone in Dallas Symphony history. More recently, the Mahler Second was the piece chosen to mark the end of Andrew Litton's distinguished 12-year tenure as music director on concerts in May of 2006. And we hear it again May 20 _23 this year to mark not only the end of Jaap van Zweden's second season as music director, but also the end of the orchestra's 20th season in the Meyerson.
As auspicious as those occasions were (and will be), my most vivid encounter with the Resurrection Symphony was also my first. I was 17 when my piano teacher gave me, in November 1967, a student ticket to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert featuring Mahler's Second. I had never heard a Mahler symphony live before, and didn't really know the work. I was more excited about the chance to witness the conducting of legendary maestro Leopold Stokowski, who, at 85, was making a rare return to the orchestra he built into one of the world's best during his tenure as music director from 1912 to 1936.
On paper, the program order that night seemed strange: Stokowski opened with Bach's Magnificat, followed by the first movement of the Mahler. Then he took intermission! Though unorthodox, it was an inspired decision, because Mahler wanted at least a five-minute pause after the first movement to allow the audience to ponder the momentous music they had just heard. Stokowski played movements two through five straight through on the second half. The ovation that followed was as explosive as anything in Mahler's music. It echoed in my brain all the way home and into the night.
Stokowski's return was partly responsible for the evening's magic. But Mahler's music was the real catalyst for the audience's ecstatic response. It propels the listener through a gauntlet of emotion, careening from sorrow to joy, from hell to heaven. Mahler, who knew real pain and despair in his tortured life, leads us deep into the valley of the shadow of death, as the psalmist described it, before elevating us above the muck into the warm, shining light of immortality. Mahler's text explains this trip to our intellects:
I shall soar in fervent love aloft to the Light no eye has yet beheld! I shall die to live again! Thou shalt rise again, yes again, my heart, in a single moment!
But it's Mahler music, especially the ascent of chorus and orchestra towards the ecstatic final bars, that stirs our hearts and souls in a way mere words can't. Get ready for an experience you will remember for years to come. And bring on the goose bumps!