Filled with inspiring themes of joy and rebirth, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony is quite possibly the most fitting end to the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s current season that one could imagine. It’s no secret that the CSO has gone through its own resurrection, thanks to a massive reorganization as well as monumental efforts on the part of the administration and musicians to better communicate what the orchestra has to offer the Charleston community. As a result, ticket sales have been through the roof, the CSO’s community outreach continues to grow, and, perhaps best of all, the orchestra’s talented musicians have grown accustomed to playing to packed houses. And when that packed house is the 2,500-seat Gaillard Auditorium, it says quite a bit about how far the CSO has come.
Gustav Mahler can be a challenging composer for those who don’t regularly listen to classical music. His symphonies are broad and complex, and the movements often change keys, instead of maintaining a single one throughout, which can be confusing for the ear. But these technical aspects, though important, are not why Mahler is still played today, 100 years after his death. It’s the emotional intensity of his work, its ability to speak to and move people regardless of where they are in the world, that has made him a staple in orchestra repertoires.
This emotional intensity is nowhere on better display than in the Resurrection Symphony, or Symphony No. 2. Calling for a large orchestra, a chorus, two soloists, an organ, and an off-stage brass-and-percussion ensemble, the piece is “one of the most glorious, awe-inspiring pieces ever written for the symphony orchestra,” says CSO acting principal trumpet Michael Smith. The symphony opens with a violent movement that conveys the anger and grief of death. From there, the movements continue through quietude and acceptance, breaking out into an overpowering yet joyful finale that makes full use of both the orchestra and chorus. In the CSO’s performance, that will mean 95 musicians and 158 chorus members. According to Concertmaster and Artistic Director Yuriy Bekker, the Resurrection Symphony is “one of the biggest pieces of music ever written,” which also makes it quite expensive to perform. “It’s a real honor and privilege for us to perform this piece,” he says. “This is the biggest we’ve ever done. The musicians love playing it, and it’s a great way to boost morale for both the musicians and the audience.”
The piece holds a special significance for Smith, who played it for the first time in 1996 one week after his father passed away. “It was my first semester of college at the Manhattan School of Music, and my initial instinct was to not play the concert, as my life had just been unexpectedly turned upside down. However, the more I thought about the meaning of the music, and the powerful messages of hope and spiritual renewal, I felt I had no choice but to perform. It was the right decision in the end, as it proved to be quite cathartic.” Bekker has his own, similarly emotional experiences with the symphony: “Last time I played it was about a year and a half ago, and I had tears running down my face,” he says. “When that [climax] comes, you just think about everybody that’s really dear to you, your friends and family.”
This time, it’s not unlikely that the musicians will be thinking of the CSO when that thrilling moment arrives. After a nine-month suspension, the death of music director David Stahl, a painful and difficult reorganization, and a revitalization that can only be called astonishing, the orchestra is newly inspired and looking forward to a successful future. They just announced their next season, which features both the classical masterworks that orchestra fans love, and some innovative events that will bring in new audiences. One concert will feature acrobats from Cirque de la Symphonie, who will perform as the CSO plays famous classical works. In addition, Bekker says, “Our Masterworks series is bringing in some really hot conductors and soloists, and our chamber orchestra concerts sold out many weeks in advance, so we’re extending that this year.”
The CSO is doing their utmost to prove to Charleston just how vital an orchestra is to a city’s culture, and they’re succeeding. As second clarinetist Gretchen Schneider says, “We’d been told by managements in the past that there wasn’t an audience for classical music here, and because they believed those statements, they came true — you saw the results of that in the nine-month shutdown. It seems that this past season has really proved otherwise. Seeing the upswing in concert attendance this year gives me hope, and I’m looking forward to what’s to come.”
As an added layer to the resurrection metaphor, this will be the final concert the CSO performs in the Gaillard before it undergoes major renovations. During that time, they’ll move to the Sottile Theatre and perform each concert twice to make up for the reduction in hall size.
But that’s in the future. For now, the musicians are concentrating on their upcoming concert, signaling the close of a successful year. “[This performance] is a powerful message to the community,” Bekker says. “It’s a triumph for us — we exist, and in this difficult economic climate we’re on our way to a successful future.”