Rotterdam,  Music

Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony during Lockdown

On 14 May, 2020, a concert  by the Rotterdam Philharmonic commemorating 80 years since the bombing of the city of Rotterdam was to have taken place. We were to have performed  Mahler’s Second Symphony under the direction of our chief conductor Lahav Shani for this occasion. Much to my regret the concert didn’t take place due to the lockdown put in place to deal with the coronavirus outbreak .

Instead of the planned performance the orchestra website presented an earlier performance of the same symphony under the direction of Bernard Haitink. What an exciting performance that was!  Vivid memories of that concert commemorating the same event thirty years ago came flooding back.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Second Symphony, called “the Resurrection” between 1888 and 1894. It took a long time before this colossal five movement work was completed. The opening Allegro Maestoso was originally a separate work, a tone poem with the title “Totenfeier” written in 1888. The complete symphony was first performed in 1895 by the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Mahler himself. It was a great success.

The work is about death, redemption and resurrection. It is for this reason that the work is so appropriate for the commemoration of tragic events in human history, such as war. The work is almost ninety minutes long and requires a full symphony orchestra with extra brass and percussion, including bells as well as a full choir, an organ, a soprano and alto soloist and a “Fernorchester”, a small orchestra that performs offstage. Mahler’s work seems to go beyond the boundaries of what an orchestra can do. He was trying to express the most sublime ideas “and notes alone wouldn’t suffice”.

The last movement is, for me, the highlight of the symphony. Hell breaks free with violent intensity and fury, and the end of time is portrayed. After that a beautiful and mysterious a capella choir is to emerge with complete serenity out of nowhere. Mahler uses a text by Friederich Gottlieb Klopstock to which he adds ideas of his own. The music finishes with a brilliant victory over death with his idea that man can find everlasting life through the love of God. The steady build up to a climax is superbly written with fabulous orchestration creating all the colours and power that the orchestra and singers have to offer. It is a phenomenal symphony that shows amazing maturity especially considering how young he was when he wrote it. It is certainly interesting to know the texts and connect the score to the meaning of the composer for each movement. However, I believe that the music itself is so powerful that you can be emotionally transported just by listening to the music without having had any prior exposure to it. I’m tempted to say that the knowledge shouldn’t get in the way of the pure listening pleasure that you get from this work.

In our performance from 1980 under the direction of Bernard Haitink, we were joined by the Dutch Broadcasting Choir with the solo parts sung by soprano Charlotte Margriono (1955) and contralto Jard van Nes (1948), a fantastic collaboration of great singers that made this performance unforgettable. Personally, this concert made a powerful impression on me as I had joined the orchestra only 3 months prior, so this performance was definitely my first highlight with the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

I remember how anxious, yet excited I was at the first rehearsal. I had never performed this symphony before. Maestro Haitink mounted the podium and immediately the atmosphere changed, tense with anticipation that something special was about to take place. He was sincere and polite, giving no verbal introduction but immediately started making music. He was modest, at the same time exuded authority. With the slightest movement or look you knew precisely what he wanted or didn’t want. Everyone automatically worked with intense concentration to make music. Every rehearsal felt like a performance: you did your best and it was intense but wonderful to work at such a high level. Rehearsals were efficient and effective, there was not a moment that was wasted or superfluous.

I think that a good conductor is someone that, of course, knows the score thoroughly but also has a clear idea of interpretation. A good conductor should be able to express themselves and convey their ideas so convincingly that the players are inspired to express those ideas as if they are their own. If the entire orchestra can unite in conveying the conductor’s interpretation then something special happens. I have to say, as an orchestra musician that performs numerous concerts over the years, those moments are very rare but when they do occur they are magical. When it happens you take the audience with you and you achieve an incredible level of collaborative communication.

That’s certainly what took place under Haitink then. In the meantime, Haitink stopped conducting last September at ninety years of age. I am so grateful that I was able to take part in that special concert thirty years ago.

What I realise now in this time of pandemic is the importance of live-music. It’s about music making with colleagues, a conductor and especially with an audience. Every time, with people in a concert hall or any other setting,  there is an unseen connection and communication between the performers and the audience. When the meaning of the music makes it through to the audience one feels the reaction. It doesn’t mean that everyone shares the same emotion from the music, maybe people feel it differently, but the music will touch them in some way. It’s palpable and that’s the most wonderful level of experience that can happen in music.