Mahler and Me: Preparing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from a UMS Choral Union Perspective
By Stephanie NormannTweet
As a member of the UMS Choral Union for the past three years, I have thoroughly enjoyed performing some of the great masterpieces of choral music: Handel’s Messiah, Verdi’s Requiem, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to name a few. It has only been in the past couple of years though, that I have felt especially drawn to Mahler and his symphonies– the depth of emotion in his music never ceases to affect me in a very profound way, and I have grown to truly love his work. Last year, I learned that the Choral Union would not only be performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in c minor (“Resurrection”), but we would be performing it with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. To say I was excited by this news would have been an understatement! This would be my inaugural performance of one of Mahler’s symphonies and I couldn’t wait to get started! Fortunately, I didn’t have long to wait as the Choral Union, under the guidance of conductor and music director Jerry Blackstone, began rehearsing the piece in late September of this past year.
At our first rehearsal, I sat down before warm-ups began and opened the new choral score of Mahler No. 2 that I had just picked up. I was instantly struck by what I saw on the page: straight-forward rhythms, a fair amount of unison singing between voice parts, and an awful lot of German text (my favorite language to sing in, so I wasn’t complaining). It looked almost elementary in a way, but this is not the case at all, as I have come to discover in the past several months that I have lived with this piece. Also printed in the score are a multitude of dynamics and nearly thirty different markings Mahler included, giving very specific directions on what he wanted from the chorus at various points. For example (translated from German), “Without standing out in the least” and “Somewhat slowing down again” – it is clear all of these nuances were very important to Mahler, and the vision he had for this piece. They have been equally important and emphasized by our conductor, Jerry, throughout our rehearsals as well, with no subtlety being overlooked. We were fortunate enough to have one of our recent rehearsals led by Ragnar Bohlin, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. As Jerry mentions in my video conversation with him, included in this blog post, this was a great rehearsal in which Mr. Bohlin helped us perfect our intonation and unification as an ensemble.
The length of time the chorus sings in this piece is actually quite short; Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is a five-movement symphony with the chorus coming in halfway through the final movement. The text is taken from a setting of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection). It is quite powerful, and the music Mahler wrote for it very effectively paints the picture of the hope, renewal, and rebirth that the text describes. Jerry has paid careful attention to accurate and unified pronunciation of the German text throughout our preparation of this piece. As the text plays an integral part in conveying the emotion of the music, it has not been uncommon for him to stop us several times while rehearsing until every last vowel and syllable in a phrase is correct and sung beautifully. The orchestration when the chorus enters is minimal but builds to a full, lush sound which includes “the largest possible contingent of strings” (Mahler’s own words), seven different percussion players, the introduction of the organ, and the tolling of deep bells during the final moments of this piece.
Mahler wrote of the final movement of this symphony, “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” (Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Recollections of Gustav Mahler) I personally have been humbled by the genius of this piece, and am very eagerly anticipating the culmination of all of our rehearsals when the Choral Union shares the stage with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas on March 20 to perform this amazing work. I am quite certain this performance will be one of, if not the highlight of my singing career thus far!