Taking bows after Mahler's Second:
Music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, soprano Deanna Breiwick, Mastersingers director John Silantien, San Antonio Symphony, and Mastersingers chorus.
September 21, 2019
As a general rule, it would be difficult for an orchestra to justify another performance of Gustav Mahler’s vast Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” after only five years – especially with the Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth still waiting – but the San Antonio Symphony does have some good reasons to revisit the work.
After an 18-year absence, the Mahler Second was the main item on the orchestra’s first subscription concert in the new Tobin Center. The acousticians still had some fine tuning to do on the hall, and the musicians and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing needed a few months of experimentation to take full advantage of what turned out to be superb acoustics. So, in a sense, the 2014 performance was a rehearsal for this season’s reprise, on Sept. 20.
Then, too, the theme of resurrection was apt for the start of this season, given that the orchestra was pronounced dead by its own board of directors in early January and was miraculously brought back to life two days later.
The title “Resurrection” is not intended in any religious context, but it does indicate an understanding of the human condition that underlies the religious impulse. From the white-hot crucible of the opening movement, it’s a work that covers the whole gamut –terror and triumph, struggle and peace, death and eternity.
The enormous final movement runs to glorious (some might dispute that adjective) excess – the chorus and vocal soloists; the quartet of horns situated in the balcony, in addition to the six onstage; the offstage band; the triple-forte full-orchestra climaxes that would make an AC/DC concert seem a dainty frolic; and, just when you think the aural spectacle has reached its zenith, the entrance of the full (electronic) organ, followed by elephants, helicopters, and a Trump campaign rally. (OK, I’m making some of that up, but just barely.)
Mr. Lang-Lessing has had five years to simmer his interpretation of the Second – another good reason for a revisit. The 2014 performance was vividly theatrical, coherent, and compelling. The reprise was all that, but the details indicated much additional time and thought spent in the woodshed. Maximally effective contrasts in dynamics and tempo seemed based on deep study of the score. Some breathtakingly fast passages mitigated the massiveness of the orchestration, made it seem more like the cracking of a whip than a cannon fire. The gracefiul second movement glided on long, seamless lines. Some passages took on an extra
layer of meaning. It was still a spectacle, but more than that.
There were a few minor mishaps in the brass, and the first violins fell short of their highest standard in the first movement, but on the whole the orchestra, augmented by about 30 extra players, gave an impressive, thrilling performance
Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridgesn brought a lustrous instrument and superb sense of the text to “Urlicht” (Primal Light), the Des Knaben Wunderhorn song repurposed for the fourth movement. Soprano Deanna Breiwick added her bright, focused voice to the finale. The Mastersingers chorus, prepared by the indispensible John Silantien, surpassed its distinguished record with the cleanest, best-balanced, and most thoroughly beautiful sound in memory.
SA Symphony, Mastersingers, SLL, J’Nai Bridges, Deanna Breiwick