In September 1989, conductor Eduardo Mata opened the new Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, the "Resurrection." Also on the program was local-boy-made-good Van Cliburn, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. The concert surely was an unduplicatable moment. The combination of Cliburn playing his signature piece followed by this overwhelming symphony, seasoned with the caviar of the occasion, must have been heady indeed.
Flash forward 20 years. Jaap van Zweden, a very different kind of conductor, presented the Mahler 2nd on Thursday to close the Dallas Symphony’s 2009-'10 season.
This time, the piece made up the entire program. Admittedly, a symphony that clocks in just under an hour and one half is a long sit for contemporary audiences. Further, this symphony can surely stand on its own. However, an aperitif would have been a welcome transition from real life to bliss. Maybe not bang-bang Tchaikovsky, but something. Being tossed directly into Mahler’s massive essay on death and resurrection requires a sudden adjustment, and a noisy, restless audience during the first two movements was the result.
However, those hooked into van Zweden’s concept—more muscular than elegant—of the symphony, from the first notes, were taken on the dark-to-light spiritual journey that Mahler intended, but is so rarely achieved. Mahler himself said that he didn’t know where the inspiration came from and found himself amazed at what he had accomplished. Thursday evening’s audience was also amazed. Dazzled is a better word.
The first three movements were vintage Dallas Symphony under van Zweden. Rhythms were crisp, dynamics were scrupulously observed, intonation was dead on, bowing was perfect, balance was impeccable and Mahler’s architecture was evident to even the dullest of listeners.
In movement four, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke transported it from excellent to a whole other realm. She held the audience transfixed in time and space. What is usually a short intermezzo before the final blow-out turned into a magical and suspended moment in her hands. The last few measures she sang were even more beautiful that what had come before. It is hard to imagine that anyone could ever sing it better.
The last movement is goose bump city in even a pedestrian performance, which this most certainly was not. Terry Price, the DOS's Interim Chorus Director, is to be praised for the excellent diction and intonation of the chorus. Mahler initially moves his chorus in parallel octaves when they enter, a compositional no-no for a myriad of reasons. But Mahler knew what he was doing. The effect he wanted only works if the chorus is perfectly in tune, and this was brilliantly achieved.
Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy's voice floated divinely over the chorus, and her timbre offered a perfect vocal contrast to Cooke in their duet passages. Too bad Mahler didn’t give her more to sing.
Maestro van Zweden took his time in building Mahler’s masterpiece to its shattering conclusion. Organist Mary Preston, at the shamefully ignored Herman W. and Amelia H. Lay Family Concert Organ, crashed in at the end and the total effect was simply overwhelming. Even this jaded old critic found unexpected tears running down his cheeks. (How embarrassing.)
You will have to travel far and wide to hear a better performance of one of the great masterpieces of classical music. Even those curmudgeons who think Mahler is overblown will have a hard time keeping their composure when van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony and Chorus zu Gott, wird es dich tragen (carries you to God).