Youth Symphony tackles death and resurrection in Mahler’s Second Symphony this Sunday

Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, the Seattle Youth Symphony’s music director, sat perched on a stool looking out over his orchestra. He flipped through the pages of his score to Mahler’s Second Symphony, searching for a good place in the music to start rehearsal. This was only the symphony’s second rehearsal of the symphony. Press were invited to attend to watch and hear how the orchestra was approaching the piece in advance of their May performance.

When the Second Symphony is performed this weekend (Sunday, May 23rd), it will be only the second time the orchestra has played the work in front of a paying audience and only the second time Radcliffe has conducted the piece – the previous time was with a professional orchestra in Sioux City, Iowa.

On this particular Saturday Radcliffe worked with a half sized orchestra. The Seattle Youth Symphony, one of the oldest and largest youth orchestra programs in the country, draws its teenage rooster from high schools and middle schools throughout the region. The demands of being a teenager, competing activities, and high school obligations interfere from time to time with youth symphony rehearsals. This was one of those times. Swathes of the orchestra – most of the woodwinds, a number of brass, and scattered string players – were elsewhere, occupied by high school musical obligations. Mahler couldn’t wait. The orchestra was only beginning to wrap its collective bows, reeds and valves around the music they would perform in May.

Most Saturday’s Radcliffe and the youth symphony rehearse in a crowded orchestra practice room on the University of Washington campus. They make their way through familiar (and sometimes not so familiar) repertory. In the last few years, the orchestra has learned Berlioz’s kaleidoscopic Symphonie Fantastique; Aaron Jay Kernis’ exuberant Too Hot Toccata; and Tchaikovsky’s brooding Fourth Symphony. But this is Gustav Mahler, a composer who transformed the German symphonic tradition with all encompassing visions about what a symphony could (and in his opinion should) be. If you added Berlioz’s edgy instrumentation and orchestral color, Kernis’ virtuosic demands, and Tchaikovsky’s overflowing humanity, you would only begin to comprehend the universe of emotion, color, and virtuosity that make up Mahler’s symphony universe.

At the heart of the Resurrection Symphony are the first and last movement. The middle three movements function as interludes of sorts, connecting the heavy, mournfulness of the first with the triumph of resurrection, embodied by the final movement’s church bells and organ. These two movements, on either end of the symphony, wrestle with each other and themselves.

The first movement lunges at listeners immediately with furious tremolos followed by a lumbering, lugubrious figure on the basses and cellos. Even as this initial scrapping and thudding yields to a soaring, lyrical theme, the grim introductory material is never far away. It shows up repeatedly in the basses and is repeated often during the movement. At this rehearsal, Radcliffe focused on the movement’s lyrical passages.

Before rehearsal began, Radcliffe talked about the Second Symphony and the musicians who would play the piece. He provided a point blank assessment of the orchestra. “There are many things this orchestra does well,” he said proudly, “and one of them is they can play really fast.” Speed isn’t always a bad thing. But Radcliffe had different ideas he wanted the musicians to understand. Instead of visceral energy, he was striving for pathos, supplication in the face of tragedy. Conjuring emotions like these from the Seattle Youth Symphony’s uber-talented stable of musicians isn’t always easy. Few if any of them have faced the type of disappointment or pain that would provide an immediate point of reference for the emotional quality Radcliffe was seeking.

Radcliffe and the orchestra picked through various sections, zeroing in on the mood of the Second Symphony’s first movement. Radcliffe frequently stopped his musicians to give advice that ranged from helping the double basses understand the weight of the sound they needed to produce “you are carrying a heavy coffin; sound like Falstaff.” Seattle Opera’s production of Falstaff was in full swing at McCaw Hall. The maestro had seen the performance only days before and had urged his band to do the same. To instructions on Mahler’s silences. “You’re rushing. Play the silences,” Radcliffe cajoled.

The orchestra played through the entire first movement before breaking for lunch. The musicians gave as much as they could muster given most of the sections were short handed. More work would have to be done to tighten the ensemble. But the movement emerged slower, more funeral, balanced by sweeter sounding melodies in the first movement’s fantasies. Even with the orchestra at half strength, the reading blistered with youthful vigor. Radcliffe continued to offer advice on tone and character. “This is a funeral march, not a band march.” At one particular point in the rehearsal Radcliffe barked “I want nasty.” The orchestra snarled back with menacing responses from the strings and brass. “Not that nasty!” Radcliffe countered.

Other orchestras populated with tenured musicians, esteemed conductors, and a “Mahler tradition” spend their entire professional lives trying to understand the essence of Mahler’s music. In only a few hours, the Seattle Youth Symphony had made progress reconciling the symphony’s competing ideas and Mahler’s complicated vision for the symphony.

The Seattle Youth Symphony, under the baton of Stephen Rogers Radcliffe, joined by the Seattle Choral Company perform Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony this Sunday at 3:00 pm at Benaroya Hall.

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