Seattle Symphony’s seventh season under Music Director Ludovic Morlot begins with a program pairing Mahler’s transcendent “Resurrection” Symphony and a Berlioz “lyrical scene” inspired by Cleopatra.
Gustav Mahler knew how to persist.
In 1888, the twenty-something Mahler played the first movement of his Second Symphony on the piano for conductor Hans von Bülow, an important early mentor. Bülow was famous for, among other things, introducing the world to a score once regarded as “unplayable”: Wagner’s epochal “Tristan und Isolde.”
So it must have been shocking when the eminent conductor told Mahler that he could make no sense of his young colleague’s music. “‘Tristan’ is as simple as a Haydn symphony compared to this!” Bülow declared.
‘Mahler’s Second Symphony’
Mahler’s Second Symphony and Berlioz’s “The Death of Cleopatra,” 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 8 p.m. Sept. 23, 2 p.m. Sept. 24, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $22. (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).
Note: Due to a leg injury, Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot will not be conducting these performances. In his place will be Nashville Symphony Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero.
Mahler pressed on, though, and six years later completed his Second Symphony. Known unofficially as the “Resurrection Symphony” (not the composer’s own title), the Second is a metaphysical epic in music that concludes with one of the most uplifting choral outbursts ever to shake a concert hall’s rafters.
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It makes for a splendid entree to the Seattle Symphony’s ambitious new season, which in addition to the Mahler will feature several other major collaborations with the Seattle Symphony Chorale — including Hector Berlioz’s Requiem in November and Igor Stravinsky’s “Persephone” and “Les Noces” in April.
“What I think is so fascinating about the Second Symphony is that this is where Mahler found the courage to develop his voice in ways no one had done before,” says Ludovic Morlot, beginning his seventh season as music director of the SSO.
(Morlot will not be conducting the Mahler performances as he recovers from a leg injury, the symphony announced on Tuesday. Taking his place will be Nashville Symphony Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero.)
Mahler’s First Symphony — which had yet to be premiered when he began work on the Second — already had involved a highly original take on symphonic form. But in the Second, Mahler transformed the Romantic paradigm of a heroic journey from despair to triumph into a cosmic extravaganza.
It all began as an independent tone poem — the piece Mahler played for Bülow — but grew into a vast symphony that incorporated songs he was also working on at the time.
“This is the Mahler of the Wunderhorn lieder, which are all about war or love,” Morlot explains, referring to the German folk poetry collection that the composer used for separate movements in his Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies.
Bülow, as it happened, inadvertently provided the epiphany Mahler needed to conclude the ever-expanding Second Symphony. Bülow died in 1894, and at his memorial service, Mahler heard a choral setting of a hymn on the topic of the Resurrection by the 18th-century poet Friedrich Klopstock. Its emotional directness hit a chord. Mahler immediately sensed how to give his new work the powerful counterpart it needed to the brutally dark funeral march that sets the Second in motion.
Klopstock’s verses (along with some additional lines Mahler himself penned) aren’t particularly distinguished as poetry, but they gave Mahler a framework to write a modern response to Beethoven’s “Choral” Ninth Symphony in which the ultimate stakes are at play.
Mahler grappled with questions of faith and ultimate meaning in a seemingly absurd modern world. Leonard Bernstein, one of Mahler’s most powerful modern champions, shared this preoccupation, Morlot said. Bernstein himself will be in the spotlight later in the season as part of worldwide celebrations of his centenary.
To complement the Mahler, Morlot chose to open the program with “The Death of Cleopatra,” a “scène lyrique” that the young Berlioz wrote for solo vocalist and orchestra to compete in the prestigious Prix de Rome. (His submission lost.) The Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn will be the soloist.
Both Berlioz and Mahler were visionaries before their time — an elect pantheon to which Morlot adds Charles Ives. Morlot sees all three as outsider figures whose music shows “a quality of extreme romanticism that fragments and superimposes ideas in such radical ways — and at the same time manages to embrace all the emotions at once.”