Grant Park Music Festival Mahler Symphony No. 2 Resurrection

August 21, 2010

Kalmar, with his unmistakable mop of silver-tipped hair...engages in an expressive pantomime, locked in the embrace of his orchestra as we whirl around some long-ago Viennese ballroom.

For 10 years now, Maestro Carlos Kalmar and The Grant Park Symphony have been creating music that moves and amazes their audience, with one of the world’s greatest cities as a tonal backdrop. Somehow the constant hum of humanity beyond the boundaries of Millennium Park’s pavilion and lawn makes the mastery of every performance come into sharper focus for us. On Friday evening, Maestro Kalmar revisited a piece that, on an evening in 1999 at the old Petrillo Music Shell, was to become his “audition” for principal conductor of The Grant Park Music Festival.

This is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2; composed by a man most praised during his lifetime for his work as a conductor, and whose compositions eventually opened the door for the great composers of the 20th Century. Written between 1888 and 1894, Mahler’s second symphony still sounds incredibly fresh and modern today. A study of the composer’s vision of death and the afterlife, the symphony begins as a tone poem in the style of a funeral march. The overall feel of this opening movement is stormy, a mood reflected in the swirling sky over Grant Park on this balmy Friday evening. One of the joys of an open-air concert is how the music is often enhanced and reinforced by the natural surroundings. Such was the case on Friday, as winds propelling yet another encroaching storm added to the mounting tension and swiftly changing moods of Mahler’s first movement; dramatic bursts of musical energy punctuating it like tiny lightning flashes.

A dance-like second movement is sweet relief after the turmoil of the first. The tip-toeing pizzicato of the string section builds anticipation and excitement as it weaves and embroiders Mahler’s original theme. Kalmar, with his unmistakable mop of silver-tipped hair and impossibly crisp white jacket, engages in an expressive pantomime, locked in the embrace of his orchestra as we whirl around some long-ago Viennese ballroom. This is the composer looking back on happier times. (The balance of the second symphony was written after the death of conductor Hans Von Bulow. Initially a harsh critic of Mahler’s composing, he eventually became the younger man’s mentor and close friend.) The subsequent three movements of Symphony No. 2 lead us from these sweet recollections through grief and loss and finally, to a renewal of purpose and embrace of resurrection.

In the third movement Mahler’s main theme seems to writhe in anguish. The shrill, distorted sounds of the orchestra evoke a life without purpose or meaning. Suddenly, we find ourselves almost holding our breath as the inevitable chorus of cicadas fills the slightest pause. And then, for the first time in the piece, the human voice is heard. The softest mezzo-soprano, gently opening one of the most beautiful songs Mahler ever wrote. An understated brass chorale expands to become the final movement’s “Resurrection” theme. And at last the monumental finale, again recalling themes from previous movements, but employing sounds and effects that until Mahler introduced them, had never before been heard in symphonic music. The use of off-stage musicians, huge percussion and a chorus singing in the softest dynamic ever written for voice all make Mahler’s composition unique and ground-breaking for its time.

All this made a performance of Mahler’s masterwork a most appropriate way to celebrate Carlos Kalmar’s tenth year of leading The Grant Park Symphony and helping to guide the direction of its highly regarded summer festival.

During our weeks of observing the maestro and his players in rehearsal, it became evident that every concert is a labor of love. An ambitious performance such as this is a tremendous physical effort on the part of both musicians and conductor, especially in the heat and humidity of a Chicago summer. There is a striking contrast between the pointed direction and drilling of the players by Kalmar in rehearsal, and his gentle coaxing, almost nurturing of his orchestra in performance; eliciting the most nuanced responses from his musicians and inspiring them to the perfection he knows they are capable of.

All of this is tempered with humor, tremendous enthusiasm and a passionate belief in the transformative power of music for both musicians and audience.

A musician in the GPMF orchestra told us that the experience has given them a new found appreciation for the hard work and dedication it takes to be a professional musician. “The skills and responsibilities are consuming. The 20 hours of rehearsing and performing required of each program are at least matched by as many hours per week in preparation, not to mention the years of conditioning that went into the ability to do so. Perfection in every performance is the norm.”

Today, when orchestras everywhere are under fire, their salaries and benefits at risk of being slashed from the budgets of public and private institutions as a “ luxury item”; Chicago audiences must acknowledge our extraordinary good fortune in being the home of one of the most artistically ambitious and successful classical music festivals in the Unites States today.

As the final Friday performance of 2010 concluded with Mahler’s massive orchestral and choral affirmation thundering in our ears, we realized that the benefits of ten years of innovation, musical and cultural diversity and artistic revelation are truly beyond measure. Thank you, Grant Park. Thank you, Musicians. Thank you, Maestro.

Lori Dana, Chicago Stage Review