Rhode Island Philharmonic Tackles Mahler's Second Symphony

May 3, 2013

This Saturday the Rhode Island Philharmonic tackles Mahler’s massive second symphony.  Around 200 musicians will assemble at Veterans Memorial Auditorium Saturday, May 8th, to perform this gigantic work.

Credit RI Philharmonic

This is Gustav Mahler’s second symphony.  The Resurrection.  It’s a powerful piece of work, that requires a huge number of performers.  And it has impact.  It was recently performed by the New York Philharmonic for the tenth anniversary of September 11th.   As Rhode Island Philharmonic conductor Larry Rachleff says, it’s a symphony about life.

“It’s a great work to end a season, it’s a work of inordinate depth and richness, you can experience any group of emotions imaginable—even at ninety minutes it’s accessible because it appeals to the human condition so directly.”

Rachleff has been conducting the Rhode Island Philharmonic for the last 17 years, and this is the first time he has conducted Mahler’s second with this group.  At an afternoon rehearsal, at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium in Providence, Rachleff commands the orchestra to attention.

This symphony was written over the course of about 5 years.  Mahler only composed during the summer months; he was conducting the rest of the year.  The symphony began as a single piece he called “Funeral Rites,” which would become the 21-minute first movement.  Conductor Larry Rachleff takes up the story from there.

“Then he wrote the second movement, the beautiful andante, and the scherzo of the third movement, and then he attended the funeral of Hans von Bulow, dear friend where he heard this resurrection ode being sung, and then he composed the last movement.”

The symphony premiered in Berlin in 1895.  And like his other earlier work, it was not well received, says Rachleff.

“His first symphony basically was panned, as was this symphony initially.  Half the people though it was something out of his mind and the other half of people thought it was something out of this world.  And now we’ve come to realize it’s something out of this world.”

Why out of this world?  Rachleff says it’s in part because of technical and emotional demands on the musicians, and in part due to its sheer size.  The Resurrection symphony clocks in at whopping 90 minutes, and calls for full orchestra, two harps, organ, mixed choir, soloists, and an entire brass band that plays offstage.  In all, there are about 200 musicians.

But why did Mahler need so many musicians?  Taking a break from rehearsal, principal French horn player Kevin Owen, who has played this symphony 25 times, and has some ideas.

“Mahler felt that he simply couldn’t get the massive sound that he wanted out of the instrument of the day.  Now if you were writing today, I very much doubt that he would have the same numbers that he’s using here today, because we play much more powerfully and we have instruments that are capable of that."

In addition to the people onstage, there’s a group of musicians who are never seen at all.  A full brass band plays backstage.  But, Owen says there’s a reason behind the invisible players.

“It does give it a certain great distance as if you are here in the hall with the orchestra, and somewhere else something is happening.  And in this case I think what we want to have is the idea that from afar, the resurrection is happening."

There’s also the entire choir, and soloists—and all of this, is expensive.

Performing such a large work might seem unwise at a time when orchestras across the country are scaling back, and even declaring bankruptcy.

But the Rhode Island Philharmonic believes that now is the perfect time.

The orchestra is doing well, in spite of the economic downturn.  Several of their concerts this season have sold out.  Randy Rosenbaum, the executive director of the RI State Council on the Arts, believes that this is for a couple reasons: the Philharmonic’s extensive outreach, and the state’s small size.

“There’s something about the intimacy of Rhode Island that helps an organization that’s committed to the community, like the philharmonic succeed.  No matter where you live in the state you have access to its programs.  And the work that they’re doing through their student performance activities help to connect these kids and hopefully their parents to the work of the Philharmonic.”

But Mahler’s second symphony might be its own kind of draw says Larry Rachleff.

“I think the complete plan of life has to have beauty, and there are places where beauty can be found, and people find it in different ways in their lives—that’s for sure, but for certain, it can be found in classical music, and Mahler’s second is not a bad place to start.”