While standing in line at the box office Thursday, we were told that Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony would begin a bit later than the usual BSO start time of 8:05, and that there would be no intermission. The out-sized orchestra tuned, the huge Tanglewood Chorus seated onstage, the crowd at Symphony Hall hushed, there was everywhere in evidence a feeling that something quite special was going to take place. After having worked his way through the orchestra to the podium, Christoph von Dohnányi took little time in acknowledging a warm Boston welcome, instead prompting us with a simple gesture that far more important matters were at hand.
And just as we were informed earlier, at exactly nine minutes past eight o’clock (is there something to this number?), Dohnányi set into motion Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 2 in C Minor. As fortissimo strings with bows tremulated on the dominant of that key, the G above, the tone of expectancy seized our rapt attention, which would persist undiminished over the ensuing hour and a half to the symphony’s concluding monumental cadence.
The composer himself describes each of the five movements: In the first, we stand by a coffin questioning life and death. In the second, we remember happy moments of the past. During the third, we are caught up in the bustle of life. Next, we hear a voice of faith in the song, Urlicht (Primal Light). In the fifth and final movement, we are face to face with that dreaded day and, rather than being judged, we find ourselves with a supreme love shining upon us.
With such a sea of instruments and voices before him, Dohnányi masterminded a performance reaching heights rarely experienced at Boston’s symphonic shrine. Without a single show of flashiness, the seasoned conductor led, from memory no less, the teeming myriads of notes of Mahler’s still popular symphony to inevitable yet fresh destinations. Mahler was never so elegant, so wrought with musical design, and so deeply moving.
In the opening movement, to be played “with complete gravity and solemnity of expression,” woodwind doublings and an English horn solo were as impeccable as they were affecting. The first of a number of wow! moments came in the first gigantic climax with a full orchestra display of power. Expressing suffering and sorrowfulness in perfect balance with reserve captured completely the most singular characteristic of the composer’s personality.
Yet another moment! Now 23 minutes into the work, the first movement over, Dohnányi sat down on a stool, and with the hundreds of musicians onstage, waited in silence for five full minutes while latecomers took to their seats.
There was much to see as well as hear beyond the classic discipline of the conductor, the Tanglewood Choir remaining seated—and still—throughout most of the long symphony. The BSO strings looked ever so inviting as the violin and viola, each split into multiple sections, held their instruments like guitars, plucking away in the “very easygoing” second movement. The pizzicato harmony coming toward the end caught at least one string player off the beat, but the final plucked chord was right in time. The clarinet’s coloring of the third movement with refined echoes of the klezmer sound was also inviting. Captivating orchestral solos, doublings—and even triplings—so challenging when that many different instruments must play in unison—families, and tuttis would run the whole nightlong.
Despite the commitment of soprano Camilla Tilling and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, their vocal production was un-idomatic in Mahler’s non-operatic work. John Oliver’s splendid Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with the onstage and offstage instrumentalists of the BSO, created miracles of music and meaning. Emotions ran high in Symphony Hall, and this time I was one of those who leapt to his feet with hands noisily coming together in round after round of resounding applause.