The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs “Resurrection” review- a towering musical event

Thursday, May 23, 2024 -- CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - MAY 23 : CSO with Conductor Neeme Järvi, Soprano Mari Eriksmoen, Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, Guest chorus director James Bass, on May 23, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo) © Nuccio DiNuzzo Photography 2024
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On May 23, 2024, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, in a program to be repeated May 24th  and 25th, Estonian-American Maestro Neeme Järvi conducted The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, guest vocalists Mari Eriksmoen, Soprano, Karen Cargill, Mezzo-soprano, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, led by Guest Director James K. Bass in a stunning performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, known as Resurrection.

Orchestra Hall was sold-out; the audience beforehand buzzing with anticipation, and afterwards the building rang for many minutes with the sound of standing ovation and cheers. How to describe the breathless expectation, the rapt attention paid, the thrilled fulfilment and tribute? Perhaps it can be summed up in a single anecdote- this reviewer’s seat neighbors confided that they had flown in from Colorado for the program, as they have done 5 times a year for decades to experience the great CSO. They said they’d been delighted to have been selected to attend a rehearsal open to CSO donors the day before. And later, as we made our way out of the enclave, beaming with joy, they exulted, “We got to hear this twice!”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Resurrection, May 23, 2024

Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, 1888-1894, is a journey to fruition at the zenith of performance in the orchestral/choral canon. It’s a taxing effort for the musicians, presenting a large spectacle and many intriguing sight and soundlines: a sole violin leaves, a flock of horns enter and exit twice, the beautiful mezzo-soprano voice emerges in the fourth movement, the lovely-voiced chorus and the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists in the fifth, the organ only in the last few moments. Double harps, a generous panoply of percussion- some offstage-including racks of bells and numerous timpani play behind a full complement of strings. Most of the instruments get featured solos. The music itself is scored for maximum drama- a shriek occurs midway, is heard again late. There is a noticeable- but under Järvi’s baton, not protracted- silent hiatus before the second movement. The Conductor had a deliberate and controlled hand at the helm, with lyrical yet well-paced gestures, intimate with the Orchestra.

What is most impressive about Resurrection is the way it makes you feel; in the hands of musicians of this caliber, the listener is taken on a saga from fear, sorrow, and the end of the entity through resuscitation into glorious restitution, the destiny of all mankind. Mahler spent 6 years working on this fearsome, enormously developed piece and even he expressed awe at the impact it maintains on the senses. In January of 1895, following preliminary rehearsals, he wrote, “The effect is so great that one cannot describe it…The whole thing sounds as though it came to us from some other world”.

Conductor Neeme Järvi leads Soprano Mari Eriksmogen and Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Opening with a cello and bass call and descent, not unlike Beethoven’s Ninth, the first movement expands into a series of themes that bring  to mind the stages of approaching death: life flashing before the eyes, reflection, determination, a vision of peace. The second movement Andante, marked “Very gently, do not hurry”, calls forth in 2 distinct themes a memoir of happiness vs a nostalgia for lost innocence. The Scherzo is a dizzying dance conceived as if “through a glass darkly”, the fourth a comforting and solemn song meeting the angel. Finally, the fifth “In the tempo of the scherzo” is slow and mysterious, ascending into a confrontational march; trumpets sound at intervals, and the chorus with the marvelous mezzo sing us into tolling bells and a closure.

All photos by Nuccio DiNuzzo

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