On November 24, 1963, Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler's Symphony no. 2 in C minor, “Resurrection”, in a televised tribute to President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated just two days before. In a speech at the United Jewish Appeal Benefit the following day, Bernstein explained why he had programmed this particular work. “This must become the mission of every artist... to achieve the triumph of the mind over violence,” Bernstein said. The goal, he added, was, “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.” That message is even more compelling these days than it was in Bernstein’s time.

Giancarlo Guerrero conducts the Seattle Symphony © Carlin Ma
Giancarlo Guerrero conducts the Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

Happily, the circumstances of the Seattle Symphony’s performing the work were far less tragic, although the injury of the orchestra’s music director Ludovic Morlot did cast a pall over the occasion. But the orchestra, under the outstanding leadership of guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, overcame the absence of its maestro and gave a worthy reading of the monumental work.

As a prelude to Mahler’s ultimately life-affirming Resurrection was Hector Berlioz’ La Mort de Cléopâtre, a little-known work that deserves to be heard more often. From the very first notes, it was clear why this cantata, written as the 26-year-old composer’s entry for the Prix de Rome, did not win the first prize in that competition (though he did accomplish that goal the following year with his cantata, La Mort de Sardanapale). Its rhythmic and harmonic quirkiness and experimental nature must have bewildered the staid, conservative jury consisting of such established composers as Cherubini and Boieldieu. Like numerous other composers, Berlioz had no qualms about repurposing his music in subsequent works. His use of themes from his overture, Le Carnaval Romain, was a revelation to the ear, as were the many vocal passages displaying hints of his grand oeuvre-to-be, Les Troyens.

Christianne Stotijn and Giancarlo Guerrero © Carlin Ma
Christianne Stotijn and Giancarlo Guerrero
© Carlin Ma

Guerrero immediately took up the task of shaping the ambivalent syncopations, emblematic of the queen’s anguish over her ignominious defeat at the hands of the Romans, into a coherent through-line. The accompaniment he provided for Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn was sensitive and insightful and, with its opening harmonies settling into a semblance of C minor, effectively set the stage for the Mahler. Stotijn’s voice, large and capable of cutting through the sizeable orchestration, was unfocused in the mid-range but her top notes had enormous impact, as did her dramatic forcefulness in rendering the gripping final moments of the fallen queen’s demise.

Following a chilling death scene with a massive, life-affirming symphonic work seems entirely appropriate, and as usual, even in absentia, Morlot’s programming was intriguing and effective. Guerrero has acted as music director of the Nashville Symphony since 2009, and his rendering of the Mahler was at once vigorous, passionate, and nuanced.

After the somber, muted ending of the Berlioz, the enormity of the Mahler’s opening Allegro maestoso, with its vehement Wagnerian thematic declaration by the lower strings, gripped the audience. From the very beginning Guerrero led the immense forces of the expanded Seattle Symphony with controlled abandon, eliciting dynamics of every range and coaxing tones from the sweetest to the most strident from each section of the orchestra, as fleeting intimations of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht floated by.

The Seattle Symphony © Carlin Ma
The Seattle Symphony
© Carlin Ma

Guerrero sustained the energy and dynamism throughout the intense 80 minutes with gestures ranging from expansive and vigorous in the first and fourth movements to ethereal and buoyant in the In ruhig fließender Bewegung and Scherzo movements. The buildup to the recapitulation in the opening movement was so forceful as to draw gasps from the audience. Guerrero drew optimum playing from every section of the orchestra.

Stotijn’s instrument seemed better suited to the Urlicht section of the work than to the Berlioz, and thus was shown to better advantage. Swedish soprano Malin Christensson proved worthy of “Nightingale” status with her lilting, crystal-clear tones. Although this particular work does not contain extensive enough material to give a full assessment of a soprano’s voice, it did effectively whet the appetite for more of this singer’s performances in the future. 

One should witness a live performance of this symphony at least once in one’s life. Mahler was indeed well served by this rendering.