Brian Ahlstrom

Dr. Brian Ahlstrom is a retired neurologist and active music lover. He reviews Johnstown Symphony Orchestra performances for The Tribune-Democrat.

Maestro James Blachly had promised a concert that would be “earth-shaking, soul-affirming, life-changing and inspiring.”

If Saturday’s Johnstown Symphony Orchestra performance of Gustave Mahler’s “Second Symphony” wasn’t entirely successful for every audience member, it was not for lack of effort by the performers. The audience member to my immediate right was reduced to tears at the end of the fifth movement, a phenomenon I had previously encountered only at weddings and tragic operas.

The conjunction of the stars was fraught with potential peril: The last concert of the JSO’s 90th season in its original home, the Cochran Auditorium, in the 100th year of its existence, during the 130th anniversary year of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889. 

Even a novice astrologer could see dark and ominous foreboding. Not to mention that it was the eve of Mother’s Day, two weeks after Easter and the night of a Tomahawks semifinal series playoff game.

The maestro rose to the occasion, summoning 90 musicians onto the stage, along with the combined voices of the Johnstown Symphony Chorus and the State College Choral Society, and featuring two esteemed soloists, soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen, in addition to (literally) bells and (figuratively) whistles. But, alas, no kitchen sink.

Mahler is often thought of as a composer linking late-19th century romanticism with the modern currents of the 20th century. Some of his pupils championed atonality. Though Mahler did not practice this dark art, he vigorously defended his pupils.

He also was innovative by incorporating German lieder into his symphonies, going beyond simple lyricism, or even “sampling.” He freely sourced “Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder” (The boy’s magic horn: Old German songs), a collection of German folk poems. His overall output as a composer was likely limited by his active engagement as a conductor, successively at the Royal Landstheater in Prague, the Neues Stadttheater in Leipzig, the Royal opera in Budapest, the Stadttheater in Hamburg, the Hofoper in Vienna, and the Philharmonic in New York and Vienna. This conflict between composing and conducting has been mirrored in our times in the careers of Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Blachly.

Mahler’s music can be dark, reflecting a life of many difficulties and loneliness. 

Many of his 13 siblings died young. 

His younger brother committed suicide at the age of 21. His father, younger sister and mother all died in 1889, the year he started to write his symphony No. 2, the Resurrection. He was Jewish in a world of open anti-Semitism.

Mahler once said: “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.”

Mahler’s “Second Symphony” is a curious amalgam of two smaller symphonies, one a Totenfeier (funeral ceremony), as a lament for a hero, and another a thorough exploration and celebration of redemption and resurrection. In fact, the world premiere of the first three movements was in Berlin on March 4, 1895 – with the composer conducting – while the world premiere of the complete work was on Dec 13, 1895 in Berlin with the composer again conducting.

Perhaps he believed that if the two were not juxtaposed, the listener would not experience the full scope of the human experience. He said “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” – a phrase I have often compared to the more familiar Walt Whitman boast, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The first movement is much like a funeral march with themes based on the Dies Irae plainchant. There is a somber finality to the steady progression of thematic elements. The second movement is a remembrance of more joyful times, though the third returns to dark material, ending in a “cry of despair,” sometimes characterized as “a death shriek.” The fourth movement ends with Urlicht (Primal Light), a Lied from the Knaben Wunderhorn.

The fifth and final movement is the longest and most tumultuous, ending in “Die Auferstehung” (The Resurrection) with the first two stanzas from Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and the remaining six verses from Mahler’s pen. This upward sweep of the fifth movement deals with redemption and resurrection, a theme Mahler would return to in his beloved “Das Lied von der Erde” (The song of the Earth), a symphony with two voices growing out of another painful period in his life (the loss of his position as director of the Vienna Court Opera due to anti-Semitism, the death of his daughter Maria from scarlet fever and diphtheria, and his own diagnosis of congenital heart disease). He truly embodied the transformative power of music and art.

The instrumentation was deliberately vast and ambitious. The score calls for two harps, 10 horns, 10 trumpets, four trombones, seven timpani, two bass drums and three deep untuned bells – and more.

The JSO’s musicians dealt with the complexity with magistral aplomb. 

They handled the wide variations in volume and tempo magnificently, and allowed the listener to delve into the complex world of reference and allusion without getting lost. At points I felt that I was at a jazz concert, with complex reworking of different thematic elements. Our two soloists were celestial visitors, and the chorus was strong and uplifting. I was chilled by the apocalyptic trumpets scatted in the balcony and offstage, summoning the living and the dead.

The concert was an emotional workout, an entirely fitting end to the JSO season of tradition and innovation.

One feels churlish in asking, but I must: “What can you possibly do to top this next season?” 

Dr. Brian Ahlstrom is a retired neurologist and active music lover. He reviews Johnstown Symphony Orchestra performances for The Tribune-Democrat.