They have the words: Singing Mahler with the Oregon Symphony

Ethan Sperry prepares Oregon Repertory Singers and Portland State Chamber Choir for season-opener with Maestro Danzmayr

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On October 2, 3, and 4 the Oregon Symphony Orchestra opens its 125th season with new Music Director David Danzmayr on the podium. For this momentous occasion–the return of live symphonic music to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall–Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection,” is the ideal choice. Over one hundred instrumentalists, two vocal soloists – and an important message from more than one hundred choral singers.

Consider this excerpt from a letter written by Robert Shaw to his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, regarding the choir’s role in Mahler’s second symphony:

There are 124 measures of choral singing in the Mahler Symphony No. 2. Roughly one-half of these represent 20 measures repeated or slightly varied. Of the remaining 60, 10 are unison, and 45 are half-or whole notes. There is only 1 measure of moderate metrical complexity. (It happens twice.) The harmonic language is that of the Sunday hymnal.

(The Robert Shaw Reader, ed. Robert Blocker. Yale University Press, 2004, pg. 31.)

Was Mr. Shaw implying that the choral portion of the symphony was no big deal? Quite the opposite. He was reinforcing–sarcastically, because of poor choir attendance the previous evening–the supreme responsibility of the choral role in the fifth movement. He was reminding the chorus that they were not merely a means to an end. They were the way in which Mahler chose to portray a message of hope at the end of life – resurrection.

In pursuit of the message

In the middle 1880s Mahler was a busy guy in his twenties. He was building his career as an opera conductor, with conducting responsibilities in Leipzig and Hamburg, and composing lieder in his, uhm, spare time. In 1888 he was already working on his second symphony even before his first premiered to minimal success in 1889.

He pursued the final choral movement of No. 2 for half a decade. The first movement had been composed as a symphonic poem–an orchestral genre championed in previous decades by Liszt and Franck. Mahler worked on the second and third movements for four more years while still toying with the idea of writing a choral finale, a la Beethoven sixty-four years prior. But he just couldn’t find the words.  

Then in 1893 he did. He heard the lines of a hymn/poem by German poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock at the funeral of friend and fellow opera conductor Hans von Bülow, and within three months the transcendent choral finale would be set down. Fourteen minutes of some of the most beautiful and beloved choral/orchestral music ever written. Fourteen minutes that choristers worldwide still love to sing.

For this Oregon Symphony Orchestra concert, those choristers are Portland’s Oregon Repertory Singers and the Portland State Chamber Choir, both prepared by PSU Director of Choral Activities, Dr. Ethan Sperry.

Rehearsals for Mahler 2. Photo by Lauren Bryan.
Rehearsals for Mahler 2. Photo by Lauren Bryan.

Sperry’s own life-changing Mahler Second experience happened when he was teaching high school in Boston and singing as a tenor in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (which performs with the Boston Symphony). The year was 1995, the occasion was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and the conductor of the Boston Symphony was Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. Sperry marks that concert as one of the most profound experiences in his musical life. Healing for him then “as it might be today.”

Sponsor

Sperry has prepared choral forces for the Oregon Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Kalmar several times, including the Mahler Second itself in 2017 with the combined Portland State University choral ensembles. Sperry mentioned that his Oregon Repertory Singers are currently at 80% their usual singer roster, a very good turnout these days, and their voices are getting back in shape. There are some “vocal calisthenics,” said Sperry of the Mahler, but this is really ”a sprint.” And as every good sprinter knows, bursts of power and precision are essential.

Oregon Repertory Singers, who just announced their 2021-22 concert season, has performed numerous choral/orchestral masterworks over their 48-year history, including Israel in Egypt, Missa Solemnis and Elijah in Sperry’s past ten years as Artistic Director. These choral professionals (all volunteer) and Sperry’s PSU Chamber Choir will be well-prepared musically and aesthetically for the Mahler. 

This time around, however, Sperry is becoming acquainted with two new “participants” in this OSO 125thanniversary season opener: the new Meyer Constellation Acoustic System in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and Maestro David Danzmayr.

danzmayr
Maestro Danzmayr.

Assembling the forces

The sound system and the combined choral/orchestral forces had their first date a couple of weeks ago, and Sperry is looking forward to the sound system helping boost the choir’s presence in the tricky hall. And he has already conferred with Danzmayr and conveyed his artistic wishes to the singers. This relationship is very important. Respect for each other and their musicians and respect of all forces to each other makes for such satisfying music-making.

Some symphonic organizations, like the San Francisco Symphony, have established their own chorus. Since its founding in 1972 by then Music Director Seiji Ozawa, the SFS Chorus has enjoyed numerous Mahler Second performances, many conducted by eminent Mahler interpreter Michael Tilson Thomas and his choral colleague, Vance George. 

George, who conducted the SFSC for 23 years until 2006, is revered as one of America’s leading choral teachers and conductors. “There was a symbiosis,” says David J. Xiques of the relationship between the two men. Xiques has been Assistant Conductor of the choir for 26 years, 12 with George. Due to the recent unanticipated departure of Principal Choral Conductor Ragnar Bohlin, Xiques will be preparing the professional singers of the SFSC for upcoming performances. He recalls George seated stage front, in constant collaboration with Tilson Thomas, as rhythmic entrances and releases between chorus and orchestra were honed with precision in service of the text.

Text is the first thing Ethan Sperry worked on with the fully vaccinated Oregon Repertory Singers beginning August 24th. Well, actually, the first thing they did was revel in the moment of singing together again after 18 months. Sperry described it as “awesome!!!”–his exclamation marks.

Rehearsals for Mahler 2. Photo by Lauren Bryan.
Rehearsals for Mahler 2. Photo by Lauren Bryan.

Sperry is carefully coaching singers on the German words, specifically the singing of the German, wanting the consonants to pop “while wearing masks!” No small hurdle that, seated behind the 100ish piece orchestra, straight bleacher style – no, wait, not bleacher style, actual bleachers. But it will be spectacular! They just have to work out one of the most common challenges in any choral/orchestral piece – balance.

Danzmayr is conducting a massive orchestra for this season premiere: strings, organ, and harp; four each of the all the usual woodwinds; four trombones and a tuba; six trumpets and ten horns; plus timpani and ten other percussionists on various instruments–including a ruthe.

Too curious to let it go?  This is a ruthe:

The infamous ruthe. Photo by Daryl Browne.
The infamous ruthe. Photo by Daryl Browne.

Imagine looking down from the choir loft into just the brass section alone. Daunting. Even in one of the few a cappella moments – the angelic first entry – the choir needs careful training to fill the hall. And when everything does get loud, it must have force with no anger. “Crazy loud singing without tension,” says Sperry. That’s where the new sound system will certainly help.

Vance George had two favorite words to propel sound from his SFSC singers. Tilson Thomas would laugh gleefully when George told the choir to “Ethel it”, says Xiques. The reference to the great singer/entertainer Ethel Merman didn’t mean yell–it meant resonate, project. And as for the low notes the basses have to sing, Sperry recalls more of George’s advice: “take a nap before singing.”

Actually the whole quote, says Xiques, is: “Stay up all night, smoke cigars and cigarettes, drink lots of red wine and then sing.” Disclaimer! But something extraordinary is called for when the basses have to sing what is proclaimed one of lowest notes in choral repertoire. Mahler himself knew it would be a stretch for the majority of basses and admonished those who could not sing the low note to “be silent” and not take it up the octave.

Solo voices

An added phonation complication, for all singers, is the long wait before singing–approximately 70 minutes. Of course, the wait is made endurable by the beautiful solo singing that comes in movement four.

Two solo voices complete the symphonic forces. A soprano solo is heard in the fifth movement, and an alto soloist is entrusted with the exquisitely introspective song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”)–the entirety of the fourth movement.  Yes, the fourth movement is an art song by Mahler – one of nine songs in the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), written in 1893. And Mahler lets us hear it all! Such value added!

Gustav Mahler wrote at least three-dozen lieder beginning around 1880, following the path of Robert and Clara Schumann and others. Then he rewrote them, rescored them – from piano to orchestra accompaniment – and then deconstructed and reused them throughout his nine symphonies. The “Resurrection” symphony’s third movement incorporates another such art song, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes”). Sadly, it is rare to hear Mahler lieder in live performance, and even rarer in the original piano versions.

When Chamber Music Northwest premiered Marc Neikrug’s chamber opera A Song by Mahler this past August, a cheer arose from Mahlerites. No doubt just those four words “a song by Mahler” sold quite a few tickets. The only thing amiss about that engaging premiere – it was only one song. Oh, for a whole cycle! But at least “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If you love for Beauty”) was accompanied by piano, and sung beautifully by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano.

Dr. Alissa Deeter, co-director of Portland Symphonic Choir and vocal pedagogue, offers her perspective on this Mahler art song void. “We find [Mahler] later in the lieder timeline…shifting from the intimacy of piano and voice to favor orchestral accompaniment. This expansion required taking lieder out of the salon and into the concert hall, changing the demands of performance.” Those demands are certainly met in the Second Symphony’s fourth movement.

Many orchestral versions of “Urlicht” can be found on youtube, featuring notable altos or mezzo-sopranos. A real treat, however, is this piano and voice version, sung by baritone Thomas Hampson.

The vocal soloists for the upcoming Oregon Symphony concert are soprano Susanna Phillips and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Ms. Cooke will sing “Urlicht”, which ends with the text “light my way to eternal blessed life,” preparing the way for the fifth movement and the entrance of the choir.

And it is here, says Xiques, that “the choir has to deal with something the orchestra does not.” His subsequent statement was something of a surprise:

“They have the words.”  

Stunningly and profoundly simple. Human voices – earthly angels – singing the words Mahler gave them, conveying the meaning Mahler wanted to convey: “Bereite dich zu leben” (“Prepare thyself to live”). That is, in equal measure, the blessing and the challenge to the choral forces. And this Mahler choir will be prepared.  They will, says Sperry, “from the bass rise again – aufersteh’n –  from that lowest point on angel wings.”

Robert Shaw understood that the “Resurrection” choral role wasn’t only 124 measures of pretty singing. Mahler didn’t spend years searching for “pretty.” He was searching for the right words – words that would complete a work that lives on.

And we get a chance to experience it – in live performance, on this first weekend in October. Spread the word. Prepare yourself to live.

Connecting to Mahler before and after the concert.

Connect online! If you cannot attend this OSO concert in person, purchase a $14.99 live-feed concert ticket and sit back and enjoy this concert with a Pilsner (or apfelsaft) in your own home. All tickets can be purchased at the Oregon Symphony website.

Food

You might be expecting wienerschnitzel. Delicious, but since Mahler brought his nationalist roots to his music, we shall highlight food nearer to his Czech roots. And if we give a nod to his highly documented vegetarian lifestyle and proclivity for sweets, here is the food to enjoy before or after your Mahler OSO experience: halusky (hah-loosh-kee) and marillenknödel. 

Halusky is noodles – more authentically spätzle – with cabbage, softened ever so slowly in butter (or bacon fat) until it melts in the mouth. Add cubed potato for a more substantial meal.

Mahler himself praised his sister Justine’s marillenknödel. It’s a potato/egg dumpling formed around a ripe apricot. After the dumpling is removed from the boiling water bath, it is rolled in breadcrumbs browned in butter, then sugared (with or without cinnamon). 

Visual Art

Gustav Klimt was a contemporary of Mahler and friend of Alma Schindler Mahler and her family. He portrays the human figure enveloped in vivid color. Alma Mahler is said to have shared her first kiss with him. So let’s choose Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss.  

Lieder

Mahler’s connection to the lieder of Robert and Clara Schumann is seen in his own art song oeuvre. But Alma, whose own lieder received more attention after her husband’s death, had a 60 year friendship with Clara. Robert’s “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Love) is always a joy; or listen to Clara’s own setting of “Liebst du um Schönheit.

Of special note to Portland-area audiences is the upcoming In Mulieribus concert of rarely heard choral works and art songs by Pauline García Viardot. Viardot, composer, pianist and renowned operatic soprano, also knew the Schumanns and held salons which helped to showcase music of notable contemporaries and her own compositions. More information about this In Mulieribus concert is available here.

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