By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is not to be taken lightly.
Grand and complex, it requires a king-sized orchestra and a full choir.
Not surprisingly, performances are few and far between.
Youngstown audiences will get a rare chance to experience Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as “the Resurrection Symphony,” when the Dana School of Music and Stambaugh Auditorium presents it at 8 p.m. Friday. Michael Crist, director of the Dana at Youngstown State University, said planning began two years ago. A total of 250 singers and musicians will take part in Friday’s performance.
Crist put into perspective the magnitude of the event.
“Performing a Mahler symphony is a true privilege,” he said. “Many musicians have not experienced this opportunity, and for many it is a ‘bucket list’ dream.”
Crist has been a member of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra for three decades. In all that time, he said, the YSO performed a Mahler symphony only one time. Even the internationally renowned Cleveland Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra schedule a Mahler maybe only every five years, he said.
“It’s a nice opportunity for a region of this size,” said Crist.
The Austrian-born Mahler (1860-1911) wrote his Symphony No. 2 between 1888 and 1894, and it was first performed in 1895. Along with his eighth symphony, it is Mahler’s most popular and successful work, and the one that earned him his legacy as a composer who captured the beauty of the afterlife and resurrection.
“It requires a huge orchestra, with as many as eight French horns and six trumpets and a huge string contingent and the biggest choir you can put together,” said Crist. “It’s also very difficult, very sophisticated, in relation to the nuances Mahler asks for in performance. And you have to bring in a conductor who really knows the piece. We’ve been fortunate to be able to bring in Svilen Simeonov of Bulgaria, who knows it backward and forward.”
Simeonov’s appearance is part of YSU’s Bulgarian cultural- exchange program.
Musicians in the orchestra are a mix of Dana students, faculty, former faculty and alumni. They are members of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, Warren Philharmonic, Greenville Symphony, Erie Philharmonic, Akron Symphony Orchestra and Tuscarawas Philharmonic.
The Stambaugh Chorus will handle the vocal part of the performance, with Dana faculty members Misook Yun and Rachael Pavloski giving vocal solos. The performance will be sung in German.
Ronald Gould, former Dana faculty member, will play Stambaugh’s grand pipe organ.
Mahler is known today as a composer, but while alive he made his living as an opera conductor.
“He spent a lot of time in the grandiose form that is opera and brought some of that into his symphonies,” said Crist. “What sets [his symphonies] apart is what he has done from an orchestra standpoint. No opera company could afford the size of orchestra that he wrote for. He spread his wings and created a multitude of sounds.”
Pieces of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 can be heard to this day, as they are often included in movie scores.
The effort to perform the piece began two years ago after the Dana performed Mahler’s first symphony. “Michael Gelfand [director of the Greenville Symphony] was the motivator of the whole thing, and he said ‘Let’s do Mahler 2,’” said Crist. “So we sat down, brought forces together, raised the money, and here we go.”
Could Mahler 3 be next?
“Maybe we’ll do Mahler 3 in a few years, but I doubt it,” said Crist. “Mahler 2 is substantially bigger than 1 in length and size of ensemble, and 3 is even bigger than 2.”