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Mighty Mahler

The San Jose Symphony roars to its season finale

By Philip Collins

GUSTAV MAHLER'S metamusical ponderings about death and transfiguration brought San Jose Symphony's season to a inspired close Friday night. The composer's Symphony no. 2 in C minor (Resurrection) is a work of daunting dimensions and resources. Lasting roughly an hour and 20 minutes, and using soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, choir and an amended orchestra that rivals a small town's population, the work packs a walloping impact.

The stage at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts barely fit everyone, which is not the reason why there were offstage brass and percussion players--the composer indicated those specifically in the score. Mahler, anticipating later experiments in spatiality, depicted different dimensions of the afterlife by placing groups of performers in various backstage locations. The effects came off stunningly; the offstage playing was gauged strategically to the orchestra's dynamics and in perfect sync.

Mahler attempted to capture the vastness of time, space and divinity within the parameters of symphonic form in Resurrection. It is a strenuous enterprise to pull off, and the orchestra mustered commensurate wherewithal under Leonid Grin's baton. There were mountain ranges of emotional peaks and moments so delicate that one could almost hear water evaporating in the nearby Guadalupe River.

The work brought out the best from the orchestra, and the audience roared back in turn with the longest standing ovation I have witnessed in recent years at the symphony. The response may have been partly due to the fact that it was also Grin's 50th birthday as well as the completion of his fifth season with the symphony. Regardless, the applause was earned. Grin led an authoritative rendering of the work, simpatico with its expressive course, if not always keen to its nuances.

Soprano Anne-Lise Berntsen and mezzo-soprano Päivi Nisula were exemplary and well paired in the symphony's final two movements, and the combined forces of San Jose State University's Chorale and Concert Choir lavished the finale with radiance.

Mahler composed his second symphony as a kind of sequel to the first, the Titan. Whereas the program of Symphony no. 1 concludes with the hero's death, the second begins with his funeral. Movements two and three of the Resurrection are recollections and reflections of mortality before moving on to the stage of resurrection, which occurs in the fifth and final movement.

It is interesting that a 34-year-old composer, with seven symphonies still to come, would undertake so grand a philosophic tome. One would think that such a project would be more suitable to a person in his autumnal years. Call it spiritual precociousness.

A prominent conducting career--chiefly in opera--was another contributing factor in Mahler's cosmological approach to composing for orchestra. The Resurrection, like most of his symphonies, is akin to opera in its dramatic interplay of elements. Instead of characters, however, there are musical identities of strongly contrasting nature.

Folk tunes and liturgical quotes, as well as an instrumental setting of one of Mahler's own "Wunderhorn" songs, are cast into dynamic scenarios by which the composer metaphorically evokes the inner struggles of mankind. Behold the psycho-symphony.

Mahler made his dramas all the more vivid through exhaustive use of dynamism. In addition to the incorporation of offstage playing, bold contrasts are frequent in the second symphony, and the role of silence is especially significant. Gradual crescendos out of nothingness, by the mezzo-soprano at the outset of the fourth movement and with the chorus' first entry in the fifth, are clearly theatrical devices in the context of the work's predominant effusiveness.

Friday's performance made the most of such dramatic moments. Grin was at his most unerring, though unduly histrionic as well. His two soloists needed neither prodding nor cues; they delivered their passages with poise and accuracy, never diverting from fixed glazes forward.

Nisula's ushering in of the fourth movement, "Urlicht" (Primal Light), was like a beam being born, and her slow gait downstage enlarged the build. Berntsen's flutelike instrument was rapturous to behold, though sometimes it got swallowed by the chorus's oceanic textures. The choir also championed its quieter episodes. Its performance of the a capella setting of "To bloom again you are sown!" exactingly accounted for the passage's formidable harmonic twists as well as its delicate tenor.

From the opening measures, it was clear that the strings had the bases covered. The celli were solid yet limber, and their coordination with the basses was unusually snug. The violins and violas were in top form also. The woodwinds paled in consort, yet some fine solo work was served up by the principals. From the upper tier, timpanist Robert J. Erlebach Jr. performed a grand show with finely shaped rolls that mirrored the orchestra's phrasing impeccably.

The list of credits exceeds the available space by many column inches, but suffice it to say that the San Jose Symphony went out with a roar.

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From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of Metro.

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