Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony unearth the heavenly power of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Giancarlo Guerrero
Nashville Scene

By John Pitcher

Gustav Mahler viewed the symphony as a kind of all-inclusive universe. Apparently, Giancarlo Guerrero sees it more as a force of nature.

At least, that was the sense one had on Thursday night, when Guerrero led the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in a bracing rendition of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Mahler's Second Symphony is nicknamed the "Resurrection," and appropriately enough, Guerrero and his forces gave it a heaven-storming performance. This was an interpretation that had everything: violent eruptions, sudden silences, melting lyricism and a final, triumphant ascent to the summit of sonic bliss.

Most of the violence took place during the first movement. This is a dramatic funeral march in C minor that's full of mystery and terrifying climaxes. It also contains some of Mahler's most consolingly lyrical melodies. Guerrero gave all of this music its due. He resisted the temptation to rush the tempo, which gave the music a welcome sense of breadth and scope. Nevertheless, he called on his players to make big, dramatic contrasts between their loud and soft playing, which produced exquisite Mahleresque moments of shock and awe. After that, lyrical passages — especially the sweet tones of the orchestra's new concertmaster-designate Jun Iwasaki — seemed all the more appealing.

Mahler considered the first movement to be so long (22 minutes), so complicated and so hysterically intense that he included an unusual instruction in the score — namely, to pause five minutes before beginning the second movement. Guerrero figured, probably correctly, that the iPad generation would neither understand nor appreciate that odd, Victorian-era command. So he took a mere 45 seconds or so to catch his breath before launching into the second movement.

Mahler once described the second movement as "a memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless." It's actually a gentle minuet, and the Nashville Symphony's interpretation was all Viennese charm and elegance — indeed, one half-expected to see ballroom dancers waltz across the stage.

The third movement is a very different kind of interlude. Mahler based this section on one of his earlier satirical songs, "Saint Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes," and indeed this music does seem to possess something of a mischievous side. In the beginning, Guerrero downplayed the darker irony, focusing instead on the delicate humor and beauty of the clarinet. It's only after the trumpets sounded their sonic smirks that Guerrero allowed the movement's surreal and grotesque humor to come to the fore.

The fourth movement is a setting of "Urlicht (Primal Light)," one of Mahler's favorite German folk poems from the Romantic collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn). This is a magical movement in which the singer, presumably a child, imagines she's in heaven.

On Thursday night the soloist for "Urlicht," mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, seemed to have trouble finding her voice. Perhaps she was recovering from a cold, or maybe she was suffering from allergies — you could see her holding back coughs. In any case, her voice at the beginning lacked focus and volume. Fortunately, she recovered at the end and, with her familiar, feathery sound restored, sang with unfailing sensitivity.

The most memorable moment of Thursday's performance came during the middle of the fifth movement. After a brief silence, the Nashville Symphony chorus, singing a cappella, intoned the command "Aufersteh'n," or "Arise." This sound — round, pure, seemingly weightless and transparent — created the perfect backdrop for soprano soloist Janice Chandler-Eteme, who took up the command and sang with urgency and deep emotion.

The chorus, which had been expertly prepared by its conductor George Mabry, ended with the resounding, fortissimo exclamation that our suffering is over and death has finally been conquered. Judging from the prolonged and thunderous ovation that followed the concert, it seems safe to say the audience was born again.