Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mahler's 2nd Symphony in Anchorage - Three Reviews

Last Saturday, the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Anchorage Concert Chorus and Alaska Chamber Singers, along with Soprano Barbara Shirvis and mezzo Christin-Marie Hill, presented Gustav Mahler's iconic 2nd Symphony. Judy and I attended. The performance was powerful, yet somewhat mixed. I was tempted to write about it here soon afterward, but was too busy.

Thursday, Linn Weeda, who played principal trumpet in the performance, told me that the Anchorage Daily News, as part of their Arts Editor's review of Saturday's performance, reprinted my 1996 review of that season's rendition of the seminal masterpiece. First I had heard about it. I finally had time to check out how the ADN and Mike Dunham had dealt with that this morning.

Mike was somewhat unhappy with this season's result (reprinted in full here, without the express permission of the ADN):
REVIEW: A Moribund Resurrection

--- by Mike Dunham

Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony fell short of rapture on Saturday night. Though there were many elements to be admired, the enormous piece — the only thing on the program for conductor Randall Craig Fleischer’s Anchorage Symphony Orchestra season closer — lacked focus and cohesion.

To note the admirable: the reeds and brass played very well for the most part, especially the first trumpet, Lynn Weeda, who didn’t get much respite in the 80-some minute score. The guest vocalists, Soprano Barbara Shirvis and mezzo Christin-Marie Hill, were good. And the men of the Anchorage Concert Chorus and Alaska Chamber Singers sounded meatier than I can recall.

The numerous climaxes were, well, climactic. But that’s a given when they’re propelled by a couple of dozen horns, trombones, tubas etc., and two sets of timpani.

The trick is to connect those big moments in a way that keeps our attention like a excruciatingly well-timed zombie movie — which is sort of what Mahler’s “Resurrection” is, in musical form, except with a happy ending. The second and third movements, in particular, must have something of the heat, clarity, edginess and strung-bow tension of the opening and the close.

That didn’t happen. Too often it felt as if we were filling time waiting for the next corpse to fall. In contrast with the ASO’s stellar performance of the same piece in 1996 (that review is posted below), one member of the Atwood Hall audience rightly characterized the Saturday night effort as “baggy."
Here's my ADN review of the 1996 performance (reprinted in full here, without the express permission of the ADN):

--- by Philip Munger

The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra and its director, George Hanson, struck pay dirt in the final program of this year's Golden Anniversary season. Like a giant, freshly sluiced gold nugget, ASO's rendition of Mahler's epic ''Resurrection'' Symphony on Friday night was bumpy and somewhat muddy in spots. But it also was unalloyed, shining with brilliance from within. At the end, the audience rose to its feet more quickly than I have seen Anchorage concert-goers stand for any local classical music event.

The work's opening ''Allegro Maestoso'' gave Hanson many opportunities to coax the strings to life. In the succeeding ''Andante con Moto, '' the upper strings had a problem with staying together on the long series of running triplet figures. But by the end of the movement, Hanson persuaded all the players to come along for the ride.

The Scherzo, perhaps Mahler's most accessible piece, was marvelously executed. The group's balance seemed extremely keen as the brass players drifted in and out of predominance without overpowering the movement's inner fragility.

After the fiery complexities and virtuosity of the first three movements, the fourth begins with a unaccompanied human voice. The symphony's impact can stand or fail on this frighteningly exposed entry. Mezzo-soprano Janice Meyerson was extremely focused as she drew the audience into her opening words. She and Hanson lovingly negotiated the many tempo and mood changes of this taut, little song.

Concertmaster Kathryn Hoffer flavored her solos here - and elsewhere - with the tone of a village fiddler that Mahler's violin solos often require.

The final movement is a multi-image extravaganza. During haunting moments, ghostly french horns and trumpets sounded from behind the balcony. Long rolls from the two sets of timpani and other drums seemed drawn from hell. During the march that serves as build-up to the choral entry, an invisible brass band intruded from the right-hand wings of the concert hall.

Finally the chorus entered, quietly rising to the moment when the soprano takes the melodic line upward to resolution. Soloist Meredith Stone brought chills as her voice emerged from the choral mix.

The Anchorage Concert Chorus sang with stillness and surety in the opening sections. Later, when passion was demanded, the men's voices showed more unrestrained fire for Hanson than I had thought them capable of.

As the offstage instrumentalists came in from the wings to join in the conclusion and the two vocal soloists added their voices to the full chorus for the final strains, it became obvious that, in addition to the fine performance, this presentation had been very effectively staged.

This stunning cap to ASO's triumphant 50th season happened because of the efforts of a lot of people who were not on the stage. The symphony has been fortunate lately in having a very activist board led by president Brian Davies. The staff and executive director Sherri Burkhart Reddick found ways to bring new segments of the community into Atwood Hall with an aggressively expanded season.

Hanson chose important works never before heard in Alaska. The orchestra gave those works credible performances that audiences loved. How refreshing to see this fortuitous convergence in the current climate of hostility and misunderstanding toward the arts.
Here's my comment at the ADN, to Mike's review and his interpretation of my earlier one:
While I'm waiting for the check from the ADN for reprinting my 1996 intellectual property, let me add my short review of last Saturday's performance:

Overall, this season's performance was better than the one I reviewed in 1996. Structurally, Fleischer's conception was less imaginative than Hanson's. That took me by surprise, as Randy has taken far more risks with the orchestra than any of his predecessors. But last week's performance was as controlled as it needed to be. This orchestra is 15 years older than it was in '96. That maturity of ensemble seems to have worked better for the Anchorage Concert Chorus than it has for the ASO. Although problems of aging in classical ensembles are endemic in America, it is almost to the point of stifling in the ASO. Fleischer had to take the middle movements at the tempi he chose because he was stuck with the pace he could drive most satisfactorily with the material at hand.

Unlike Mike D, I thought the final movement cluster in this year's performance was far more moving than the '96 rendition. He gives tribute to the soloists, but the ACC and Alaska Chamber Singers quiet entries were stunning this time around, as opposed to being moving in '96. And the glue that held all this together was the ASO, aging or not.

As my wife turned to look at me after last Saturday's performance, she could see tears streaming down my face.

The late Mickey Belden wrote effectively about how older individual performers need to respond to their own, inevitable shortcomings when approaching their material. Perhaps an aging Mike Dunham might inform himself more fully on how this same dynamic has an impact on local ensembles.
An additional observation: In the 15 years since the original performance of Mahler's 2nd by these forces, not only have the ensembles matured and aged, but the ADN has been transformed beyond what anyone might have imagined at the time. Unlike the musical groups, the aging process at the ADN and other media here and worldwide has fundamentally changed how they have to approach what they do. However, old mindsets somehow seem to prevail in important areas, resulting in the people representing the masthead at places like the ADN continuing to move relentlessly from the once cherished notion of speaking truth to power, to one of speaking power against truth.

The most recent example of this, IMHO, was Julia O'Malley's paean to incuriosity last week, Make. It. Stop. O'Malley, as has been observed:
[P]ulled some unnamed people out of the hat for the first time ever who saw Sarah Palin with a "real pregnant belly." Astonishing! Who are these people? And why are there no pictures from that time showing Governor Sarah with a "real pregnant belly?"

O'Malley claims that Palin "acted nervous" when somebody tried to take her picture, even before the announcement. Also, her "face filled out" and her "fingers swelled." Really...

And in what can be described only as pathetic response to Scharlott's paper, Anchorage Daily News columnist Julia O'Malley contradicted her own newspaper's body of work on this matter by invoking a "spiral of silence" perspective and demanding that "someone" should "Make. It. Stop." She doesn't say who and she doesn't say how. What she means is that she doesn't want the issue even discussed.

Perhaps O'Malley was too high on her horse to recall that in December of 2008, in the aftermath of the national election, the Anchorage Daily News tried to confirm once and for all--as did I--that Sarah Palin was the mother of Trig, only to be rebuffed by Palin herself.
Perhaps part of the reason Mike Dunham can't see why Randy Fleischer had to do the Mahler the way he chose to with the forces at hand is related to why Julia O'Malley can't understand what impelled Prof. Scharlott to ask his questions. Perhaps not. But limited perspicacity at the ADN seems to find itself comfortable with both aging friends like Mike Dunham and young, up-and-coming editors like Julia O'Malley.

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