Hilbert Circle Theatre, May 21-22
As we've been told in multiple ads and press releases over the last few weeks, it's been 23 years since the last time the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra played Gustav Mahler's 90-minute Symphony No. 2 in C Minor ("Resurrection", 1903). Clearly the hoopla was meant to attract symphony patrons to something "special" - something "profound", something "different". Well, all that is true enough, with Friday's concert attracting a quite large turnout, together with thundering applause at the end. I wish all concerts would draw this size audience - and larger.
But why 23 years? Though quite lengthy, the symphony was the only work on the program; i.e. counting no intermission, the orchestra's total concert time was still 30 minutes less than usual. Though requiring a large orchestra, two vocal soloists and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, the symphony calls for those choristers to sing only for its last ten minutes, with one of the soloists getting the previous movement as well. We've heard plenty of other "behemothic" works during that period, including other Mahler symphonies. And the Symphonic Choir surely has a more difficult preparation for the choral movement in Beethoven's Ninth - usually presented about every three years.
No, the real reason for the long delay lies with the tastes of the two interim music directors. From 1987 to 2001, Raymond Leppard held sway over the orchestra, and was quoted in an interview as considering Mahler and certain other late Romantics "too splashy" (though Leppard did conduct Mahler's two shortest symphonies - No. 1 and No. 4 - during his tenure). His successor, Mario Venzago (2002-2009), while greatly admiring and often playing Bruckner (1822-1896), did not program Mahler (1860-1911) all that often. This contrasts sharply with previous ISO music director John Nelson, who played the "Resurrection" three times during his 1976 to 1987 tenure and once as a m.d. candidate in 1975. He also programmed Mahler's Sixth two seasons in a row. Clearly he was a believer.
So, what we have are the Mahlerites, who can take any excess, and the non-Mahlerites, who often can't suffer the next bar. I fear I belong, at least somewhat, to the latter category. Mahler 1, 4 and 6 are my favorites, along with certain movements among some of the others. I divulge this so that readers can take a proper perspective on my critique. Now back to last Friday.
Juanjo Mena returned as guest conductor - the only one engaged here twice this season. Clearly this appearance produced his best podium work, with each of Mahler's five movements cleanly shaped, with most impressive dynamics (especially those whisper-soft passages). He brought out all the dolorously tragic elements in the first movement as well as I've heard them, though failing to dissuade my sensation of its "motionless" construction. The ensuing Andante moderato gave us more of the breath-of-life, with both it and the third movement cast in triple meter. Interestingly, the latter movement's theme is a thinly disguised variant of that in the composer's second movement of his first Symphony. Mezzo Suzanne Mentzer soloed in the following, hymn-like "Urlicht" movement, giving us a pearly voice with an excessive pitch wobble (seemingly an endemic delivery problem with many singers).
Next came the 22-minute finale, entitled "Scherzo", despite many rhythmic and mood variations throughout. Up to the point where the choir enters, the material remains somewhat uninspired. Soprano Karina Gauvin joined the other forces such that it was difficult to hear her in the clear, but it seemed as though her vocal delivery was better controlled than Mentzer's. Then, from the pianissimo choir entrance to the work's conclusion, Mahler exalts, with cleanly delivered lines dominated by an all-surpassing theme seemingly taken right from the opening of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll. This final ten minutes is supreme in Mahler's oeuvre, but should a non-Mahlerite be required to sit through the preceding 80 minutes? Well, if you didn't know whether you could absorb this symphony's stated connection with its composer's obsession about dying and his view of the afterlife, then by all means you should have attended.