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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

MSO Ends With Mahler's 'Resurrection'

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Gustav Mahler, whose 10 epic symphonies comprise the culmination of the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition. Born in Bohemia the grandson of a street peddler, by the time he died in 1911 he'd achieved renown throughout Europe as a conductor, primarily in Vienna, and finally with the New York Philharmonic.

Though the music he himself composed was not widely understood or appreciated during his lifetime, he famously said, “My time will come.” Come it finally did, a half-century after his death, in 1960, the year that marked the centennial of his birth. Mahler's protégé Bruno Walter and a few others had tried to keep his music alive during that half-century, but it took the kindred Mahlerian dynamism of Leonard Bernstein to win Mahler's music a permanent, prominent place in the repertoire.

Across the '60s Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in electrifying performances of the Mahler symphonies, recording the cycle in stereo sound that could finally do justice to their power and glory. And the '60s were a receptive time in the wake of two world wars and on the possibility of a third. Amid the upheavals of that decade, Mahler's music of turmoil vying with peace, and ecstatic joy with profound sorrow, clearly resonated. Every major conductor since Bernstein has attempted to scale those peaks and delve into those depths.

Orchestras like to end each season with some especially spectacular work, often one that includes chorus. This weekend the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will present Mahler's Second, known as the "Resurrection Symphony," as the grand finale of its 2010-2011 season.

Mahler's symphony evokes the rising of the dead as depicted in Christian mythology as a Last Judgment, but in his vision, judgment falls away before the redeeming power of love. This symphony is not only about dying and the possibility of an afterlife. It evokes the hope that beauty and light will triumph over all the ugly and scary aspects of life while we're still alive. Mahler's music resonates with history—with the tug of war between war and peace—but also with whatever personal strife each listener must bring to peace in his or her own life.

Written approaching the end of the 19th century, Mahler's Second transitions ingeniously from the opening movement's death march to the finale's glorious conclusion. The first movement seems filled with a dread of death that repeatedly overwhelms passages of upward yearning. The second and third movements feel like flashbacks to happier times such as a person might experience on his or her deathbed.

Alto Kelley O'Connor will sing the exquisite Urlicht (“Primal Light”) prelude to the choral finale, in which the chorus ascends to great heights of orchestral splendor augmented by organ and chimes. One of the crowning touches of that choral finale is an ardent duet between the soprano and alto soloists. The soprano will be Twyla Robinson, who last appeared with the MSO in May 2010 in Brahms' German Requiem. O'Connor sang the alto solos in Mahler's Third when it ended the 2009-10 MSO season.

Mahler's Second Symphony will be presented at 8 p.m. June 10-11 and 2:30 p.m. June 12 in Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. At the helm will be the MSO's first-rate music director, Edo de Waart. Students can get any remaining tickets for $12 within two hours of that day's performance.
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