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New York Exhales With Mahler's 'Resurrection,' Symphonic Salve
Anthony Tommasini | The New York Times | 11 September 2011

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, came as the classical music season in New York was about to begin. In the aftermath the city's stunned performing arts organizations were not sure how to respond, or even whether to begin performances at all.

But life, and musical life, had to go on. Some institutions thought the strongest response was to do exactly what they had planned to do. The New York City Opera (which had been scheduled to open its season on the evening of Sept. 11), was first out of the blocks, four days later, with a new production of Wagner's "Fliegende Holländer," preceded by a moving ceremony with the entire company onstage.

The New York Philharmonic, then led by Kurt Masur, chose to open the season on Sept. 20 with a memorial program, performing Brahms's "German Requiem," a benefit for families of first responders who had died on duty. It was a consoling and magnificent performance, one of the artistic high points of Mr. Masur's tenure.

So it was especially appropriate that on Saturday night the New York Philharmonic commemorated the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 with another intensely moving program. In a free concert Alan Gilbert led an inspired performance of Mahler's Second Symphony ("Resurrection") with the New York Choral Artists (Joseph Flummerfelt, director), the soprano Dorothea Röschmann and the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. This 90-minute Mahler symphony, which plumbs "every aspect of life, from its agonies to its joys to its profound sense of hope," as Mr. Gilbert said in his eloquent spoken comments to open the program, was an ideal choice to help New Yorkers reflect, heal and persevere.

The Philharmonic did all it could to make this program "A Concert for New York," as it was called. Free tickets were distributed in the afternoon. Some weeks earlier the Philharmonic had set aside 700 tickets for first responders and families of the victims of Sept. 11, and all 700 were given away. On Saturday night some 2,000 seats were set up in Lincoln Center Plaza for a live video relay of the performance. The concert was also recorded for broadcast on public television on Sunday night.

This was not an occasion for a detailed critical assessment of a Mahler symphony performance. Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic will perform the work on the first subscription series program of the season this month. Still, there was no need to hold back, because the performance was consistently impressive.

Mr. Gilbert drew gripping playing from the Philharmonic in the opening Allegro maestoso, which hovers between a fitful funeral march and an elaborate sonata-allegro movement. At the beginning, over tensely quiet tremolos, the low strings erupt with violent bursts of abrupt phrases. Mahler writes that the music should be played "ferociously." By that standard some listeners might have found Mr. Gilbert's approach tame.

But Mr. Gilbert is especially good at revealing the layout and structure of a symphonic movement. He made the direction of phrases (what leads to what) in this episodic Allegro uncommonly clear. By conducting with some restraint he brought out the music's gravity and better prepared the shift of mood for the violins' gently rising second theme, which they played with shimmering yet focused tone. And when the music turned cataclysmic, in the deafening buildup before the recapitulation, the playing had all the raw, crackling sound any diehard Mahlerite could want.

Naturalness and grace characterized the bucolic second movement. In the third movement, an expansion of Mahler's song about St. Anthony's sermon to the fishes from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," Mr. Gilbert conveyed the whimsy while shaping the churning rhythmic figures with a coolness that lent some mystery.

Ms. DeYoung, in lustrous voice, was magnificent in the sublime setting of "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"). The orchestra burst into the stormy finale, which shifts from expressions of frenzy to Mahler's reverent settings of a resurrection poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, words that could not have been more appropriate: "Rise again, yes, you will rise again,/My dust, after brief rest!" The final episode, in which Mahler sets his own words, was again achingly appropriate: "You have not lived in vain, not suffered!"

Mr. Gilbert may have gone for overly extreme contrasts in the finale. The hushed choral passages were almost too hushed, and the orchestra blasts were sometimes blaring. But the point was made, and all the performers were palpably swept up in the music: the excellent chorus; Ms. De Young; Ms. Röschmann, who sang with deep expressivity; and the orchestra.

The ovation went on for 10 minutes. On this night the audience needed to let go.