Why, in this post-Enlightenment age of sophisticated science, do so many otherwise-rational people still cling so tenaciously to belief in a Supreme Being and a glorious afterlife for which there is no testable proof? Many would explain this seeming incongruity as humanity’s way of coping with the terror of death and subsequent nonexistence. For all the wars, persecution and other harmful behaviors inspired by religions over the millennia, this determination to believe in some sort of resurrection has at least yielded a bounty of cultural riches that can thrill even the most skeptical empiricist. Case in point: Gustav Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No. 2, which will be performed by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP) this Saturday evening, April 5, at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie.
Mahler was inspired to complete his Second Symphony – on which he had already been working for five years – by a snippet of a poem that he heard set to music at the funeral of his Hamburg Opera conducting colleague Hans von Bülow: Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (“The Resurrection”). One might think that, at age 34, the composer was a little young to be brooding on his own mortality; but the lyric about one’s dust rising again “struck me like lightning,” Mahler wrote in a letter to conductor Anton Seidl. Penning a bunch of additional verses, he made the poem the centerpiece of the Symphony’s uplifting choral finale, which is widely regarded in the classical music world as a worthy successor to Beethoven’s Ninth.
Not for nothing is Mahler known for the grandiosity of his works, though his compositional deftness enabled him to carry them off without straying much over the line into pomposity. The fifth and final movement of the Second Symphony runs well over a half-hour by itself; the orchestration calls for “the largest possible contingent of strings” (the composer’s words) and lots of extra brass and percussion, some of it booming out from offstage, in addition to a substantial mixed choir featuring two soloists. Interesting trivia note: The B-flat below the bass clef that the basses in the chorus must hit four times during this movement is the lowest vocal note in standard classical repertoire.
For logistical reasons, Mahler’s Second doesn’t get performed live as often as many other stalwarts of the classical repertoire. When it does, it tends to happen around Eastertime on account of its popular nickname, the “Resurrection Symphony” – even though the resurrection thematically envisioned by the composer is that of Everyman, rather than of Jesus in particular. No matter: Any full-scale performance of this mighty opus is a good excuse to get out and hear it, whatever the time of year. And you don’t have to be a believer to “soar upwards/To the light which no eye has penetrated,” in Mahler’s words, on the wings of these sublime sounds.
The HVP’s ambitious production, under the baton of Randall Craig Fleischer, will employ 85 musicians, not counting that offstage ensemble of brass and percussion, plus more than 100 singers from the Vassar Choir and Capella Festiva. The Phoenicia Festival of the Voice will supply Maria Todaro and Michelle Jennings as the mezzo and soprano soloists respectively. The concert begins at 8 p.m., and Maestro Fleischer will present a pre-concert talk with members of the orchestra one hour before curtain, open to all ticketholders.
Admission for Mahler’s Resurrection ranges in price from $32 to $55, with Student Rush tickets available one hour prior to the concert for $20. Tickets are available at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the Ulster Performing Arts Center box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or via TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.
Mahler’s Second Symphony, Hudson Valley Philharmonic/Vassar Choir/Capella Festiva, Saturday, April 5, 8 p.m., $20-$55, Bardavon, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 473-2072, www.bardavon.org.