In the spirit of Hallowe'en, Mahler’s Second Symphony focuses on the idea of Zombification; however, any mention of eating brains didn’t pass Mahler’s final edits. Nevertheless, each movement examines a different aspect of Life and Death, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Sarah Connolly, Angela Meade and the choristers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir presented a standard performance of exactly what the work sounds like.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

 In 1888, Mahler completed the symphony’s first movement in the form of a one movement tone poem, Totenfeier. Through a modern (and quite literal), 1980s rock-culture translation, this German word roughly means “Party of the Dead”. Far from a typical costume party, the overall mood of movement is noticeably grim and conceptually finds the living endlessly questioning why one must go on living. The Philadelphia Orchestra shows their acute attention to dynamic nuances from the onset with a large orchestra strike swiftly decrescendo-ing along a long tremolo in the violins. Following a lineage of fine wind players, Philadelphia still exemplifies a unique wind sound that conveys uniformity of blended color, demonstrated in the Dies irae-like theme. At the head of the ensemble, Mr Nézet-Séguin is a wild, young conductor with an extensive collection of spirited gestures that make one think he must be doing a great job given the level of perspiration. Nevertheless, Mahler originally asked for a five minute break between the first and second movements; however, like most conductors of our time, the break arrived at a compromise, allowing time for the soprano and mezzo to enter the stage and time for the audience to let out an unrelentless amount of coughing.

A Ländler follows the funeral march, offering a contrast to the gloomy movements surrounding, in which the departed look back on youth and lost innocence. Gentle yet vigorous, the Philadelphia Orchestra read the movement very well, playing all right notes and appropriate dynamic volumes. However, for a movement based so blatantly on a dance form, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s string section is about as stiff as it gets (with the exception of the group’s principal second violin). Aside from the concertmaster, the majority of string players kept their eyes glued to the page for the entire concert without expressing observable levels of internal communication and movement.

Based on a melody from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the third movement is very much like a game of baseball. The conductor throws the pitch to the timpani who cracks the first note with a strong thump and makes way for the melody to pass among various string and wind groups. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the best in its class when it comes to blending sound and drawing seamless lines from one section to the next, but the lifeless staccato notes from the string section made for a sound reminiscent of chopping vegetables. Performance aside, the underlying concept of this movement is eminently dark, contempt and disgust surround the departed until he releases a “death-shriek”, making way for a song of hope.

The fourth movement “Urlicht” begins with a muffled cry for help to bring mankind into heaven. With the highest poise and control, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who sported what looked like a Klimt painting, served a guide to the light at the end of the tunnel. Her voice is inviting, hovering across the orchestral palette with delicate phrasing and skillfully articulated diction.

The finale follows the plot of most zombie thrillers like Dawn of the Dead: the earth trembles, the trees uproot, and the dead rise from their graves, marching forward as the “Caller” begins his final judgment over all creation. Chaos and clarity battle through the revisited Dies irae theme, an offstage horn call, and a brief pause before introducing a new “resurrection” theme. The featured chorus of saints at this performance was the Westminster Symphonic Choir, whose fine-tuned artistry is enough to send shivers down any listener’s spine. The choir speaks of rising again out of dust into immortal life as the mezzo-soprano joins again, this time alongside a soprano, sung here by Angela Meade. Ms Meade carries a very large voice which set her initial entrance at an operatic pianissimo rather than a Mahler-esque pianissimo; her positive message of hope no doubt heard at every corner of the hall. At the end of the piece, the choir sang a forte to raise the dead and had this reviewer nervously scanning nearby chairs for any signs of rustling in the mink coats.

Mahler's Second Symphony is a compositional masterpiece in the lense of overarching drama. It is composed infallibly so as no person sits through an entire performance and leaves feeling the same, or dissatisfied for that matter. All members involved presented a very standard performance of the Mahler Second that we should all experience every few years to remind ourselves why it is we continue to live.