American orchestras traditionally close their main subscription seasons with a choral-orchestral blockbuster. This weekend, the Dallas Symphony and music director Jaap van Zweden continued the custom with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), a mammoth paean to the immortality of the human soul.
Wagner’s restless harmonies and Beethoven’s expansive architecture—particularly the Ninth Symphony—loom large over this score. Relatively young at the time he created this monument, Mahler borrowed unabashedly from both of those heroes of nineteenth-century music to create a piece that, well over a century after its premiere, relentlessly attacks and coaxes the listener on several levels. In a world in which the latest headlines warn of ecological catastrophe and the ability of a few crackpots to wreak widespread havoc in our ultimately fragile world, a gigantic symphonic work, the gist of which seems to be that everything will be all right in the end, can seem anachronistic. Musically, one might question the value of a work that more or less forces the listener, once trapped in the concert hall, to experience the breathless thrill of music that just keeps getting louder and higher and grander. Intellectually, the same listener might also apply a little healthy skepticism to a text that, when combined with that endlessly exciting music, tells us to accept its premise just because it makes such a lovely emotional resonance. (The complex and unsettling relationships of text and music in the Requiems of Brahms, Verdi, and Faure, all works roughly contemporary with Mahler’s Second, seem much more enduring in the twenty-first century, in spite of the specifically Christian content. In striving to be universal, Mahler at times just becomes as simplistic.)
Still, whether viewed (and heard and read) as a worthy source of emotional strength—or, on the other hand, as an overblown expression of late romantic escapism, valuable mainly as a snapshot of late nineteenth-century psychology and fascination with the gargantuan—Mahler’s Second makes for a great live listening experience. Conductor van Zweden successfully combined an aggressive, muscular approach—announced in no uncertain terms in his almost percussive reading of the opening motif—with a constantly engaging, almost meticulous exploration of detail. Ultimately, it was the quiet moments—the extended solo for flute, the little violin solo, the Schubertian quasi-lied that introduces the voice three-quarters of the way through—that made the greatest impression in Thursday night’s performance; and that’s as it should be.
The forces at hand Thursday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center were quite up to bringing Mahler’s vision and Van Zweden’s concept to life. The Dallas Symphony Chorus, trained by interim director Terry Price and performing from memory, was both musically and emotionally on cue. Soprano soloist Heidi Grant Murphy was radiant as usual, and a relatively new figure on the vocal scene, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, very nearly stole the show. I never thought that the consonant “r,” as Cooke delivered it in her opening phrase in the fourth movement, could be so beautiful.
Photo: A young Mahler photographed in 1881.