One of the most celebrated works of the symphonic literature met one of the least recognized orchestras on the East Coast this Sunday, the Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey, and it was a match made in heaven.
Matthew Oberstein, a charismatic young conductor who has been with the group seven seasons, led the Philharmonic in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, one of the most challenging but sublime works in the repertoire. A performance of this sprawling 90-minute work is always a much-anticipated event. But this was not only the first time I ever attended a performance by this ensemble. It was the first time I’d ever heard of it.
Not for small minds
But there was no reason to fear. From the first assertive chord in the violin and violas to a finale five movements later with chimes, vocal soloists, full orchestra including two harps, and chorus, this was an impressive, professional-grade performance by the all-volunteer orchestra of more than 80 pieces (the largest ensemble of its kind in the region). The group was joined by the Singing City Choir under Jeffrey Brillhart. The concert was part of this season’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein, who championed Mahler’s work in Europe where it had lost favor during the waves of anti-Semitism surrounding World War II.
Composed in the final years of the 19th century, Mahler’s Second is not a work for small minds. It grapples with the “big questions” of philosophy: Why am I here, why do I die, what happens after death? Unlike many artists of the 20th century, Mahler has a positive response to these prompts, taking us on a symphonic journey that leads from death (you can hear the cortege trudging along in the first movement) to a notion of personal resurrection and glorious eternal life. Cynics may roll their eyes, but the music is so good that, at least for an hour and a half, you believe it.
Conversations in space and time
Oberstein shaped the first movement with intelligence, precision, and an emotional connection that grew as the work unfolded. Mahler’s scores typically include a full range of human emotions and experiences, including snippets that sound or feel like raucous laughter, little jokes, or trivial incidents, as well as incorporating grand gestures and deep meaning. There are also many debts to Beethoven in this work: the funeral march reminiscent of the "Eroica," the four-note motif from the Fifth Symphony, the entrance of the soloists and chorus in the final two movements, inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth. There are whispers of Wagner, as well, including the conclusion to the first movement which has the feel, if not the content, of “Forest Murmurs” or the “Siegfried Idyll.”
The orchestra shone and indeed became more engaged as the work progressed, with captivating solo passages in the woodwinds and some stellar work by the brass choir. Oberstein rightly gave the percussion section free rein in all the right places. The thunderous timpani in particular and the precise pacing of the cymbals helped maintain high energy throughout the work and propel the symphony to its glorious conclusion.
One surprising but effective touch was placing a group of French horns at the left exit in the audience and a quartet of trumpets at the exit to the right. The effect was riveting, like the echo achieved by the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, who would place instrumentalists or choirs in different lofts to create haunting musical conversations over space and time.
Looking forward to next season
The conclusion to Mahler’s third movement was particularly cohesive and comparable to the best work of any excellent orchestra. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever made an impressive entrance in the fourth movement with her rich, luxurious voice, to the text “Urlicht,” or “Primal Light,” by the poet Friedrich Klopstock. A beautiful addition to the soundscape was Paula Ann DiGianvittorio in the soprano passages.
Mahler’s own text, sung by the radiant chorus and soloists against the swelling strains of the full symphony, resounds with the words, “Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead.” Despite a few unsure synchronicities between soprano and chorus, and a final entrance of the chimes which could have been more assertive, the work ended on a note of triumph and, yes, even ecstasy: a tribute to this excellent conductor, these talented volunteer musicians, and the large, enthusiastic audience filling the Eastern Center for the Performing Arts at Eastern Regional High School. I am looking forward to next season, Oberstein’s last with the orchestra, especially the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.
What, When, Where
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, the “Resurrection.” Conducted by Matthew Oberstein. The Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey. May 5, 2019, at the Eastern Center for the Performing Arts, Eastern Regional High School, 1401 Laurel Oak Road, Voorhees Township, NJ. (856) 779-2600 or www.psnj.org.
The Eastern Center for the Performing Arts is wheelchair-accessible. With two weeks’ notice, it may be able to provide assistive listening sevices and large-print programs. For further information on accessibility, call (856) 779-2600.