United States “A Concert for New York”: Mahler, Symphony No. 2: Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director), Alan Gilbert (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. 10.9.2011 (BH)
It’s impossible to review an occasion such as this – an offering from the New York Philharmonic to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – in the same way as a traditional concert. As conductor Alan Gilbert said in his terse, eloquent opening remarks, “We are faced, on this anniversary, with the responsibility – and privilege – of commemorating the devastation and bravery we witnessed in our beloved New York City ten years ago, of acknowledging sacrifices and heroism that still leave us stunned.” And he’s right: many people here are still unable to even comprehend the surprise, the horror, the magnitude of what occurred.
Gilbert and his colleagues felt that they should play something, and after some discussion about exactly what that “something” should be (e.g., any of the various Requiems), chose the Mahler Second Symphony, the “Resurrection.” As it turned out, the decision seemed close to ideal, presented as a free concert at Avery Fisher Hall. Outside on the plaza, hundreds of listeners filled chairs to watch the evening live, broadcast on a jumbo screen, and the performance was shown on public television the following night. (The concert will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in October.)
I brought a friend with me who lives close to the former World Trade Center site, and equally significant, had never heard the piece. She was overwhelmed. After other 9/11 commemorative music earlier in the weekend, which she described as unrelievedly heavy and sad, in her view Mahler’s epic encompassed everything: yes, even to the point of evoking the actual moments of violence on that numbing day. But Mahler also includes tranquility, humility – even some humor – and of course ultimately, an ecstatic image of the afterlife.
Gilbert chose relatively broad tempi, especially in the turbulent opening movement; overall this was a “Resurrection” encouraging the musicians – and the audience – to linger with Mahler’s orchestration and experience the work at its cathartic best. The second-movement “Landler” was as gentle as could be imagined, in telling contrast to some of the evening’s more cataclysmic moments. Michelle DeYoung offered a patient, spacious view of the “Urlicht,” and Dorothea Röschmann sang solemnly, luminously. The New York Choral Artists responded clearly to Gilbert’s requests for extreme pianissimos; I will never forget the image of his left hand raised, meticulously tapering off each phrase by closing his thumb and forefinger, the audience utterly silent. And during the finale, when the full impact of the orchestral and vocal forces engulfed everyone in the room, I suspect there were many – like me – whose eyes were watering.
I wish I’d made more of an effort to corner some of the many first-responders in the audience – over 700 police, firefighters and emergency personnel – to get their impressions of the evening. Many must have found the experience emotionally overwhelming, sharing it with thousands of others. In Gilbert’s words, “We do what people do when the boundaries of our reasoning are strained, and we must turn to art: we make music.”
Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 as part of the orchestra’s regular season on September 22, 24 and 27. Information here.