Building from contemplative grief to transcendent triumph, Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, known as the “Resurrection Symphony,” is a revelation. The Richmond Symphony and Chorus, under the bracing baton of Valentina Peleggi, will be performing the monumental piece on Saturday and Sunday, April 1st and 2nd, at Dominion Energy Center.
For those keeping score, the BBC ranked it the fifth greatest symphony of all time, after Beethoven’s Third and Ninth, Mozart’s “Jupiter,” and Mahler’s own Ninth. Of those, only the “Ode to Joy” conclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth lands anything like the emotional punch of the choral climax of “Resurrection.” Despite its epic scope, with expanded instrumentation both on and off the stage, it retains a rare, human-scale intimacy. It was the most popular of Mahler’s symphonies in the composer’s lifetime, and it still inspires deep connection well over a century later.
“I can show you where the Second Symphony stands in my heart by showing you the score that I’ll be using,” says Peleggi. Reached in Italy via Zoom, she holds up an oversized book with a grey cover. “When I was a teenager, this was my dream piece. Even before CDs, I had a cassette that I played again and again.”
She opens the book to a page with an artistically looping signature covering about half the page. “I snuck into the rehearsal because I wanted to see what it sounded like. And then I went back to the dressing room of my hero, Zubin Mehta, to get his autograph. I told him that I wanted to be a conductor. He said, ‘You have to come to the rehearsals.’ And that was the beginning.”
The piece was important in her personal life for other reasons, as well.
“You feel a lot of emotions. It just shakes everything in your body and it brings you on a journey, transporting you from the very beginning to the end,” she says. “There is the heroic idea about a symphony that builds a world, not just a sound world but a real world. It is about life, the universe. Even more than Beethoven’s Ninth.”
The scale of the symphony is epic, with a duration of nearly 90 minutes from the opening melancholy march to the celestial choral ending. The first movement was originally a stand-alone tone poem, “Totenfeier (‘Funeral Rites’).” The radically contrasting second movement is full of lyrical life. The third movement is drawn from one of Mahler’s songs based on “Das Knaben Wunderhorn,” a collection of folkloric German poems and songs; it is all-instrumental, the text about St. Anthony preaching with passion to oblivious fishes, is an ironic, if unheard, subtext to eddying melodic undercurrents cresting in a dissonant climax. This sets up the fourth movement, “Urlicht (Primal Light),” the first vocal section, based on another Wunderhorn song about the yearning for spiritual connection. The fifth and final movement, at more than half an hour, is as long as many complete Beethoven symphonies; with a dramatic sweep from the dark grandeur of the Last Judgment to the astounding brilliance of the eponymous “Resurrection,” it ranks as one of, if not the, most sonically astounding and gloriously satisfying conclusions in Western music.
A climax for the ages
The climax is so huge that it requires an expanded orchestra, reimagined musician seating, and a second conductor, Daniel Myssyk, to lead the offstage players. And that is just the logistics. “The practical things are usually easy, quick to be solved,” Peleggi explains. “For conceptual ideas you need more time. What is the color of the sound here? When you have six instruments playing the same melody, which should be in front?” Mahler, more famous in his lifetime as a conductor than composer, filled his scores with extensive, detailed directions, going beyond the three levels of dynamics- i.e. “ppp” [for “piano”, i.e., “quiet”) to five: “ppppp.”
The sound level is not just for dramatic variation, it is integral to the concept of the piece. “When the chorus enters is a very special moment. It is the reply to the incredible journey that Mahler drafted,” Peleggi says. “Why we live. Why we suffer. The orchestra has been onstage for an hour, playing desperately and asking ‘why, why, why?’”
Peleggi’s concept is to have the vocals begin with subliminal softness.
“I don’t want people to know for the first ten or fifteen seconds that the chorus is singing,” she says. “For them to gradually realize that the sense of life comes from a voice that is there already. The answer is already all around us. It is just that we never shut up and listen. Everything has a meaning. And the answer is just love, and it is beautiful.”
Realizing that vision is a collaborative effort.
“I’m really happy to be in Richmond,” Peleggi says. “A conductor can do [so much] up to a certain point, but you don’t have your own instrument. These musicians are incredibly sensitive and sophisticated, but they are also ready to move with you. If you visualize something, they are able to make it real. It’s a gift, and not every orchestra can do this.”
The performance opens with another piece about ascension, "Icarus in Orbit," by the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning, African American composer George Walker. “It is the same idea. A human who wants to ask questions, and cross the limits, and push things forward, bit by bit,” Peleggi says.
For the legendary Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on waxen wings, the result literally fell short. The human striving for transcendence is the same.
The Richmond Symphony performs Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection,” on Saturday, April 1 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 2nd at 3 p.m. at Dominion Energy Center. Tickets are available through the Symphony box office or online and range from $10 (student) to $85.