Oh, to have the confidence of Gustav Mahler.
Johannes Brahms shook in his boots when he approached writing his first symphony in the 1860s, haunted by the "giant" figure of Ludwig van Beethoven. Mahler had plenty of oddities and obsessions, but he certainly didn't suffer from an anxiety of influence. Mahler knocked down Beethoven when he wrote his Symphony No. 1 in the 1880s. And then he went right for the jugular with his Symphony No. 2, modeled after Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, "Choral."
That confidence -- or hubris -- caused Mahler countless headaches with musicians and friends. But it gave him the power to tackle the ambitious agenda of life after death in Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," which the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed last night at Heinz Hall with the Mendelssohn Choir and soloists and conducted by Manfred Honeck. The resounding concert closed the orchestra's 2008-09 season and Honeck's first as music director in spectacular fashion.
Mahler's writing and orchestration is so strong that it can prop up many a mediocre performance. However, when a conductor with a vision and performers with grace and ability connect as they did last night, the work gains an ineffable glow.
From Honeck's intense treatment of the tremolos and his rushed conducting of the abrupt motif in the basses and cellos at the opening of the first movement, he staked out uncommon dramatic territory for the symphony. I wouldn't expect anything less from Honeck by now -- the drama, accents and accelerations were never superficial but served the score at every turn. In fact, he pulled back the forces just as often and drew some thrilling colors from all reaches of the orchestra.
Honeck also introduced several wonderful details that are not heard as much in this work, such as having the strings play the second movement landler (an Austrian peasant waltz) with a long up-beat that mimicked the folk zither, and ending it with the string players playing pizzicato holding their instruments like guitars. Yet it was his managing of the large-scale tension and release of the work -- that made its payoff at the end with the choir so satisfying.
This is one of the most fascinating symphonies to watch as much as to hear, with musicians constantly moving on and offstage. It ends with more than 110 musicians and 150 singers taking every bit of the stage.
Yet, the excellent solo performances by many a musician greatly impressed, none more so than trumpeter George Vosburgh, who matched the implied hero of the piece with scintillating solo after solo. Trombone player Peter Sullivan, English horn player Harold Smoliar and others contributed mightily as well, and soprano Katy Shackleton Williams and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, sang well. And the Mendelssohn Choir displayed a breathtaking amber tone when it finally joined in, singing the Resurrection chorale.