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Concert Review: Mahler’s Symphony #2 – The Symphonic Choir of Westminster Choir College, Philadelphia, PA 3/23/2010

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I'm going to state what I consider to be an obvious, a priori, comment: Mahler was the greatest contrapuntalist after Bach and before Stravinsky. And his Symphony #2 in c proves it. Moreover, Michael Tilson Thomas with his band of San Franciscans went a long way to confirm this axiom. Joining him were soprano Laura Claycomb and mezzo Katarina Karnéus and the Symphonic Choir of Westminster Choir College on Tuesday, 23 March in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia.

Now granted, any performance of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony is going to be a special occasion; notwithstanding that it rivals the First in popularity and is not infrequently performed. As far I can recall there have been at least three performances of the Mahler Second since the Kimmel Centre opened nine years ago. Nevertheless, whenever you amass resources of the scale needed to do this piece, it's noteworthy. The speed, clarity, precision, and force of the double basses at the onset immediately gave one the impression that this was not going to be like any other performance of this piece. Thomas' direction was as clear and precise as any orchestra player could ever want. There was absolutely no ambiguity as to entrances, dynamics, or tempo.

Referring to my comment about Mahler the contrapuntalist, throughout the first movement there is double, triple, and quadruple counterpoint constantly going on, and all themes are highly recognizable, interesting tunes. Therefore, when everything is being played correctly the listener is kept very busy deciding upon which themes to focus; because, Mahler has all, or most, of them working simultaneously. The composer tries to distinguish each melody during all of this counterpoint with a score that is chock-a-block with all manner of nuances.

Mr. Thomas, fully understands the significance of these uncompromising demands upon the listener, and seems to delight in them. Not only did he precisely observe and render this myriad of particulars; but, his taut, rhythmic drive and tension inducing manipulation of tempi compelled the listener into the full sweep of the movement. The string playing was as clean as a well honed blade; even the little glissandi which Mahler indicates in the score were perfectly synchronized.

Such accuracy was even more evident in the second movement. Here we started with the perfect ländler; all grace and elegance, with perfectly timed luftpausen and (again) gentle understated glissandi, making the sudden outbursts all the more effective. Orchestral pizzicato rarely comes off cleanly. This becomes particularly true with the return to the movement's opening in which all the strings, except the double basses, are divided. Additionally, this section is a study in nuanced subtlety of dynamics in which the various divisions of the strings play different levels of piano, pianissimo and pianississimo. Usually one can at best expect a reasonable facsimile of how it's supposed to sound. Not here. Mr. Thomas and his group produced the tightest, cleanest pizz I can remember from any orchestra.

I must say, Mahler's tempo marking of "In quietly flowing motion" belies the dark, underlying tension of the music. There's nothing "quiet" or "tranquil" about this music. Mahler, perhaps more closely than any other composer I know, comes dangerously close to communicating a specific emotion musically. And here, again, Mr. Thomas' reading of the score and his orchestra drove this movement to it's blazing climax with it's anticipation of the last movement's opening, to it's exhausted collapse, leading directly into the "Urlicht."

Katarina Karnéus has a lovely, clear, yet rich mezzo-soprano voice. Her dynamic range is not unimpressive. She and the orchestra were refreshingly balanced with a sensitive reading of this transitional yet, important little movement based on one of Mahler's des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Thomas manages to get the orchestra to almost completely disappear at the end of this movement. In fact,one of the most impressive aspects throughout the performance was this orchestra's incredible dynamic range from almost imperceptibly soft (for an orchestra) to blisteringly loud, rivaling the London Symphony Orchestra in its heyday under Davis.

This contrast was no more illustrated than by the sudden outburst of the fifth movement recalling the climax of the Scherzo, indicating (apparently) the "final days." Nevertheless, following the beautifully played aftermath, and all things have finally died down, there then came the longest percussion crescendo the likes of which I never heard that proceeded into the "march of the dead," (as it were) that seemed to virtually shake Verizon Hall.

This was easily the most stirring performance I have ever heard of this. Much of it can be attributed to Mr. Thomas' brilliantly deft use of subtle accelerando moving you toward the next section only to pick up the pace again to the next. One got the impression that just when you thought there couldn't be anymore, there was. After all hell had broken loose (again) there then came the haunting offstage band and their signaling the final end.

The co-ordination between the offstage group and the main group was perfect. During the aftermath of the final "destruction of the earth" climax the offstage group must to co-ordinate with the solo flute and piccolo in the main orchestra, this is particularly difficult to get right even with the cameras and all the trappings of modern technology. I have heard this section played from total disaster to fairly close. This was the first time I have ever heard this section played as near to perfection as I think it could ever be played. Just amazing.

Finally, as if from out of nowhere the choir enters singing a true pianississimo (ppp). Soprano Laura Claycomb did a nice job of ever so slightly emerging from the choir, standing up only that point where her line began to separate from the choir. She has a very fine voice and high musicality; her high G float was very nice indeed. Again, balance was everything. Both singers were equally matched in power and ability; which was made abundantly clear during their duet.

The choir was the best Westminster Symphonic Choir I've heard in over two decades. Dr. Miller has evidently been working on rebuilding that full, rich and glorious sound for which the choir and its school had been famous until the early 70s. It was just so refreshing to hear real tenors and basses again. The altos also had a depth and richness of tone that had been missing for far too long. The sopranos, as usual, were fine with a glorious high Bb. It was nice to know that Mr. Thomas isn't afraid of the organ either. It only comes in at the final statement of the choral, but the affect of hearing it at almost equal level with the orchestra is truly stirring.

I really don't have enough superlatives about this performance and this orchestra. Its first chair soloists are top notch especially William Bennett oboe, Robert Ward horn, and Mark Inouye trumpet who gets to hold and decrescendo to pppp(!) on an high C for three long measures. In fact, when Mahler would occasionally go into his "chorale" writing, the brass could produce the kind of sound that was worthy of any Bruckner symphony, of which that writing was redolent.

So Mikey, when are you and The Bay Band coming back to Philly? You're the best!

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About Ralph Fisher

  • I sang in the Westminster Choir under George Lynn, Robert Carwithen AND Joseph Flummerfelt. I heard the choir under his direction and I must say, after 20 years of on the job training in the last five he finally began to get it right. Considering Flummerfelt didn’t know beans about vocal production when he started and thought pointing a stick at voices was good thing, I guess he didn’t do so badly. I would suggest you listen to Bruno Walter’s recording (1956) when John Finley Williamson was still directing and Bernstein’s 1963 recording of the Beethoven “Missa Solemnis” when Warren Martin was directing. For these pieces you don’t want an English boy choir sound. Flummerfelt’s tenors always strained and had no head tone. That’s because he didn’t know how to tell them how to do it. Joe Flummerfelt did serious damage to the Westminster sound. You may not like or subscribe to the kind of sound JFW and his prodigies developed. That’s OK, but to take a viable choral tradition and almost single handedly destroy it is just as wrong as if some one came in to St. Olaf and tried to make it sound like an opera chorus.

  • TotallyDisagree

    I would have to completely disagree with your assessment of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. One can only assume that you didn’t approve of Flummerfelt’s leadership (which began in the early 70’s) of the choir and I would like to know why. Because if you had spent any time listening to his choirs or observing his process you would know that he only accepted a sound that was connected, open, and free. And if you have spent any time observing Miller’s rehearsals or listening to his choirs you’d know that the sound is compressed, over-controlled, and shrill. The Bernstein recording of the Mahler 2nd with the Symphonic Choir under Flummerfelt’s leadership is one of the most glorious and soulful recordings I’ve ever heard. So before you criticize a a great artist’s work so generally and praise another you should really spend some time learning about both mens’ philosophies on choral music. I’m sure it was a fine concert, but it in no way deserves yours or anyone else’s criticism of Flummerfelt’s work.