Call it the "Survival" Symphony rather than the "Ressurrection" (as you almost could), and Mahler's Sceond might be the theme song of nearly every symphony orchestra in the United States. It has been heard frequently around the country in this year when many orchestras have stared into the abyss, and it concludes the financially troubled National Symphony Orhestra's subscription season this week on a note of serene confidence.
"What you have endured will carry you to God," sang two soloists and an enormous chorus at the end, and a massive orchestra with augmented brass, percussion and woodwinds joined fervently in this song of hope. So did the audience, a moment after the final chord, leaping to its feet for a long standing ovation.
A few other orchestras might have given more polished readings of Mahler's Second than the one presented last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. But under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich it had a sweep, a grandeur of concept, a momentum and a sheer excitment that made an occasional problem of intonation irrelevant. The interpretation was appropriate for a relatively youthful in which Mabler first sketched many ideas that would be elaborated with more power and finesse in the eight symphonies that followed. This work, which took six years to complete, dates back 95 years, but its impact was as fresh as today's headlines.
Mahler's Second begins with deep, brooding thoughs of death; we are standing at the coffin of a fallen hero and wondering, in the composer's words: "Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?" A big question for a symphoney to ask, and one to which Mahler would return often. From there, the music wanders through three movements that contrast innocence with experience (perhaps heaven with hell) before it concludes with a massive affirmation of faith in survival beyond the grave.
From towering climaxes, Mahler slips into the most delicate chamber music textures, from the simple lift of a peasant dance to the most violent visions of terror and chaos. Giving it a unified impact is as complex a conducting assignment as any Rostropovich has accpeted -- and he does not avoid the tough ones. His mastery of this work, his control of an orchestra that he has brought to the brink of greatness, were a fitting conclusion to the season that may well be remembered as the year of his conducting breakthrough. He evoked the rhythmic vitality, the vividness and variety of colar that are his hallmarks, but there were also, when needed, a serenity, a simplicity, a sene of subtle gradation in tempo and dynamics, that are signs of deeper conducting potential.
The Choral Arts Society produced a sound as finely contoured and balanced as the orchestra's and both soloists were excellent. Gwendolyn Bradley's wide-ranging, intense soprano voice emerged from and rode splendidly atop the choral sound.Mezzo-soprano Claudine Carlson was deep and rich in tone, precise and emotionally powerful in her use of the German text.