Friday, May 24, 2013

…To the Symphony

For those of you who don’t know me, I grew up listening to and playing classical music.  I stopped listening to it for many years, but you always end up coming back to what you love.  As a result, since I live just outside of Houston, and Houston has an excellent symphony, I try to buy some type of season package each year that I am able.  This season I was able to purchase a 4 concert package.  The last concert in the package was the final concert performed by the music director we have had for the past 12 years, Hans Graf.

 Hans Graf (Image found on Google Images)

Exterior of Jones Hall, Downtown Houston (Image found on Google Images)

I attended the Houston Symphony on Saturday, May 18, 2013, at Jones Hall.  Before the concert began, the Symphony presented gifts of appreciation to Hans for his hard work and inspiration during his tenure.  When he took the stage for the presentation he received a standing ovation from the audience.  Although he is leaving us as music director, he will remain on the rolls as Conductor Laureate.  I’m looking forward to attending the Symphony when Hans returns as a visiting conductor as he is a joy to watch in concert.  As much as I enjoy the music, I always find it just as entertaining to watch the conductor at work.
The typical order of a Symphony concert is for the orchestra to play a couple of shorter compositions, take a short intermission, and then play a long piece as the second part of the program.  However, for this farewell concert, only one piece was played:  Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection).  This symphony also includes a vocal component, which consisted of two soloists and the Houston Symphony Choir for this concert.
While the average symphony form normally has 4 movements, Mahler’s has five.  It consists of two huge outer movements (#1 & 5) that enclose 3 (#2-4) smaller movements.  Carl Cunningham describes the symphony as “a massive work that begins with a death march and ends with a hymn of human resurrection” (Houston Symphony Magazine, p 29). 
I got the following information on each movement of Mahler’s Symphony from Wikipedia ( ): 

Allegro maestoso - The first movement – written in C minor – though passing through a number of different moods, resembles a funeral march.
Andante moderato – The second movement is a folk dance with two contrasting sections of slightly darker music.  This slow movement itself is contrasting to the two adjacent movements. Structurally, it is one of the simplest movements in Mahler's whole output. It is the remembrance of the joyful times in the life of the deceased.
In ruhig fließender Bewegung – This movement opens with two strong, short timpani strokes.  It is followed by two softer strokes, and then followed by even softer strokes that provide the tempo to this movement.  Mahler called the climax of the movement, which occurs near the end, sometimes a "cry of despair", and sometimes a "death-shriek".
Urlicht (Primeval Light) – This movement has a vocal component, sung by an alto, which serves as an introduction to the Finale.  The song illustrates the longing for relief from worldly woes, leading without a break to the response in the Finale.
Im Tempo des Scherzos - The finale is the longest, typically lasting over half an hour. It is divided into two large parts, the second of which begins with the entry of the chorus and whose form is governed by the text of this movement. The first part is instrumental, and very episodic, containing a wide variety of moods, tempi and keys, with much of the material based on what has been heard in the previous movements. New themes introduced are used repeatedly and altered.
The movement opens with a long introduction, beginning with the "cry of despair" that was the climax of the third movement, followed by the quiet presentation of a theme which re-appears as structural music in the choral section, and by a call in the offstage horns.  The first theme group reiterates one of the themes from the first movement, and then introduces the "resurrection" theme to which the chorus will sing their first words, and finally a fanfare. The second theme is a long orchestral recitative, which provides the music for the alto solo in the choral section. The exposition concludes with a re-statement of the first theme group. This long opening section serves to introduce a number of themes, which will become important in the choral part of the finale.
The development section is what Mahler calls the "march of the dead". It begins with two long drum rolls, which include the use of the gongs, In addition to developing the death march and resurrection themes and motives from the opening cry of despair, this section also states, episodically, a number of other themes, based on earlier material. The recapitulation overlaps with the march, and only brief statements of the first theme group are re-stated. The orchestral recitative is fully recapitulated, and is accompanied this time by offstage interruptions from a band of brass and percussion. This builds to a climax, which leads into a re-statement of the opening introductory section. The horn call is expanded into Mahler's "Great Summons", a transition into the choral section.
The chorus comes in quietly a little past the halfway point of the movement. The choral section is organized primarily by the text, using musical material from earlier in the movement. Each of the first two verses is followed by an instrumental interlude; the alto and soprano solos, "O Glaube", based on the recitative melody, precede the fourth verse, sung by the chorus; and the fifth verse is a duet for the two soloists.

My Reflections:
I thoroughly enjoyed this concert.  The piece alternates between the dark, heaviness reminiscent of death and the light, spirited music that brings hopefulness and joy to mind.  I actually went by myself, which meant that I was able to completely lose myself in the music.  As a matter of fact, I was so caught up in the music that I cannot recall the transitions between the 3rd and 4th movements, or the 4th and 5th movements.  There was a clear pause between the 1st and 2nd movements, and the orchestra took a very short break between the 2nd and 3rd movements to re-tune their instruments.  When I finally took a glance at my cell phone to see what time it was, I realized that the concert would be ending after about 15-20 more minutes.  And too soon after that, it seemed, the final note was struck.  Truly a wonderful concert!

What is your opinion of classical music; love it or hate it?  If you love it, what is your favorite composer/composition?

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