in an op-ed for this month’s edition of The Wholenote magazine, robert harris---former classical music critic for The Globe and Mail---reflected on his recent experience as a mentor for the Emerging Arts Critic program, of which the TSO is an enthusiastic member. his reflections took a turn towards the unique mission of music critics now and forever. one particular stretch of his piece was especially relevant to my experience of the TSO’s production of gustav mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” on the 18th of april 2019:
The work and the world. That’s the other secret of arts, and especially music, reviewing, that newspaper editors counting clicks to digital articles spectacularly fail to understand. It’s not just the artistic world that the critic investigates – it’s the whole world. And that’s because music is such a deeply social, deeply communal activity. The move from a discussion of music to a discussion of society is impossible to avoid. “” robert harris, Arts critics emerging, we dare hope!
fused forward in our individual seats---as we often are at the symphony---it’s not the easiest thing to tap into that deeply social, deeply communal activity of sharing a musical experience. there are of course regular exceptions to that generality in the TSO’s season and it’s usually on the occasion of some commemorative or celebratory theme infused into the program. in this case the theme is the celebration of easter and the impending resurrections inherent---both the theological christian kind and (for secular palates) perhaps the figurative resurrection of abandoned new year’s resolutions. with or without sympathy for the religious sentiments readily available in mahler’s Resurrection---and i’m still in search for someone with even less sympathy than i---the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, flanked by a combination of the Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto and Elmer Iseler Singers, entranced the entirety of the Roy Thomson Hall audience for the unbelievable length of 77 uninterrupted minutes.
and without the fresh air and confectioneries of intermission, or the ambiguities of a mixed program, there could be no doubt about the mission of the orchestra’s performance---solemnity interchanged with a menagerie of activity, ending in a shattering and cathartic finale. indeed the night wrapped up with what was perhaps the loudest and longest standing ovation for a TSO production this season, (with the probable exception of any of barbara hannigan’s spectacular singer/conductor performances).
the same exorbitant instinct that propels seminal figures in other artforms to create a work of gargantuan proportions---think martin scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, fyodor dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov---is evident in mahler’s Resurrection. it is seemingly the work of a composer who simply wanted to write something very long and very loud (and also of the lamentative and divine variety). it is all three those things, effortlessly, and the TSO’s performance undergirded all three dimensions with a fourth: with an epic performance of relentless intensity.
---yes, epic, and it begins at the podium: matthew halls’ last-minute heroics as a substitution for conductor juanjo mena’s originally scheduled appearance was a self-ballasted force of nature all throughout. from the first intimations of activity that opened the symphony via the cello section to the fully fledged orchestra at gale force in the finale, halls’ marathonian endurance was the epicentre of the performance’s inexhaustible energy. in return, the orchestra as a unit never lost it’s breathless stride.
whatever macabre themes are instigated by the gurglings and tremblings of the percussive instruments, were amplified and blasted into orbit by the brass section, whose members entered and exited the pit as needed. the more intimate and subtle elements of each the five movements belonged to the violin section as they coloured-in the details of the musical subjects while the other sections gathered for their ascents. in the background of it all--and the source both of solemnity and catharsis--the choir’s performance was of hairraising explosivity and clairevoyant harmonics . (this despite having to sit silently through 80% of the symphony).
at the length of five movements, there were many opportunities for the performance to become drawn out into the metaphor that brahms used to describe anton bruckner’s symphonies: ‘symphonic boa-constrictors’. mahler’s Resurrection is moreso a compilation of vibrant but disparate movements tamed into symphonic format than a symphony dividing naturally into its movements. Totenfeier, an orchestral march by mahler that found little favour at its initial performance, was reworked in 1893 as the first movement of his Resurrection. having decided upon a second symphony---and with a monumental first movement in place---he discovered a sufficient finale in Resurrection Ode, a poem by friedrich klopstock read at the funeral of hans von bulow, the most eminent member in the audience of the failed Totenfeier recital five years earlier. it is in this last two movements that the choir makes its mark: contralto marie-nicole lemieux breaks their silence with a wrenching performance of Urlicht (Primeval light) in the fourth movement and joelle harvey’s high and spirited soprano accompanies the choir through the long stretch of the Ode at the bottom of the fifth.
all throughout, however, i couldn’t help but wonder: what of the performance is still available to those in the audience, like myself, who showed up only for the music and feel no qualms picking the religious stuffs neatly off their plate? for these purposes am i reminded first of robert harris’ reference to the work and the world, and second of the unique character and capability of this genre of music that we are devoted.
in a world evermore irreligious, this work---as long as capable orchestras persist---is at little risk of losing its relevance. what i really mean: gospel music, of the devout and rapturous variety, is an experience i knew intimately growing up in an intensely religious household; and in all of those sundays wherein spirits and church-choir soared together, there was nothing available for those who didn’t feel themselves a serious member of the religious world they were born into---nor were they able to pick the religion neatly off from the technical brilliance of the kind achieved by the TSO. the music and the divine are often inseparably integrated, indeed in my case it required quite the journey to realize that it wasn’t the divine in the music but the musicality of the divine that was most compelling…
incredibly and irresistibly compelling!---the musical experience is too communal an activity to hang its infinitely vibrant hats on the one head of godliness, or atheism or whatever variety of moral circumstances one subscribes to. at the climax of every performance we’re all collectively vis-a-vis the samework---that is the triumph of the classical repertoire. and when the world from which that work was born fades away, the sheer sensory reality of the work will always be available, and almost exactly as intended. the most significant feature of course is whether such capable orchestra do indeed persist. the Toronto Symphony orchestra, in this particular instance of Resurrection, nearly blasted the roof off roy thomson’s Hall.
written by michael zarathus-cook; the TSO’s Mahler Resurrection Symphony runs from April 17th-20th