How far can you travel from Spokane in one hour and 20 minutes? By car, you can reach Moses Lake; by plane, Portland. If you took a seat in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday night, however, you traveled from death to eternal life, and from defeat to triumph. It was quite a trip.
Our guides were Eckart Preu, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and Spokane Symphony Chorale, and two magnificent vocalists, soprano Angela Maria Blasi and mezzo soprano Mary Ann McCormick. The vehicle was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (1894).
Mahler (1860-1911) conceived his music contrapuntally, which is to say in a way that has one or more melodies or musical ideas of equal importance active at the same time. Thus, any choir of the orchestra can play a leading role at any time. The string basses, for example, led by their principal, Patrick McNally, leaped to the forefront in the opening bar, and played with great virtuosity and intensity throughout the piece. Other lower strings, usually relegated to supporting roles, instead performed as equals to the violins. The cellos are given a gorgeous countermelody in the second movement, and the beauty and fullness of their tone was unforgettable.
Mahler was a master of orchestration, so every instrument is featured to its greatest effect. As principal clarinet, Chip Phillips coaxed a remarkable range of color from his instrument: from angelic purity to klezmeric jollity. The playing of principal trumpet Larry Jess also demands special mention. Mahler places great demands on the trumpet, which must sound at one point like the horn of Gabriel and then like the barking of Satan’s hordes. Jess moved from one to the other with effortless mastery.
After three substantial orchestral movements, Mahler transforms the texture of the piece by following Ludwig van Beethoven’s example by introducing the human voice. We were all fortunate that the voice we heard was McCormick’s. Its warmth, tenderness and velvety beauty reminded us there is no substitute for the human voice in expressing our most profound thoughts and feelings.
The singing of the Spokane Symphony Chorale had the same effect, most remarkably in their soft singing, which, in its warmth and fullness of tone, stood comparison with the finest ensembles on record. Their articulation of the German text was not simply clear, but thrillingly beautiful. Their director, Julián Gómez-Giraldo, is a master of his craft.
At the last, however, it was Preu’s achievement that was most notable. Particularly impressive was his management of tempo throughout the piece. The pursuit of the ideal sequence of tempi is the philosopher’s stone of the conductor’s art, and Preu must have it in his pocket, allowing him to forge Mahler’s panoply of moods into a coherent, expressive whole. Every detail made its effect, without allowing the steady increase in tension to lapse, until it finally climaxes with the chorus’s thrilling “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n …” (“Rise again, yea thou wilt rise again”). It was not easy to remain seated.