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TSO, Amadeus Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers, conductor Matthew Halls in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony; ​Photo credit: Jag Gundu

​​Review by David Richards
oronto ON April 18th 2019

Gustav Mahler once said that in his first two symphonies, “there is nothing except the complete substance of my whole life”. Indeed, his music delves the depths of life itself. In the ninety minutes of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection”, last night’s concert by the Toronto Symphony invited the audience to explore the emotional journey of life and death in a way few composers’ music could do

​Guest-Conductor Matthew Halls stepped in with short notice to replace the ailing Juanjo Mena to lead TSO this week. The British conductor has performed with major orchestras across North America and around the world in recent years – from New Zealand to Iceland with stops in Warsaw, Salzburg and Chicago. It’s no wonder that he is in demand. He conducts with amazing energy and precision. It was his fourth time leading the TSO. Last night he gave a heart-felt emotional performance of the Mahler symphony, holding back nothing from the score’s often violent images of death and judgment. Halls, educated at Oxford, he has devoted much of his time to historically informed practice of early music, but as we heard last night, late-nineteenth century symphonic music is equally in his musical soul. 

Toronto Symphony and Mahler team up to explore the depths of life and death!

Placing the concert in Easter week may have been misleading to the uninitiated who may have inferred from “Resurrection” that it somehow related to the Christian narrative. Not so. Mahler, a Jewish composer/conductor who converted to Catholicism for purely practical reasons, spent several years to put together his own personal spiritual philosophy into this profound music. His idea of “resurrection” came from his belief in the continuity of life in death and in the triumph of life’s mastery over death.

Mahler’s music is addictive. Once bitten by its larger than life orchestral sounds and emotional complexities, it’s hard not to keep returning for more. I had a brief pre-concert chat with an audience member who said that she had come to Mahler’s music long after falling in love with the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. After hearing Mahler’s 5th last fall, she said she just had to return. As daunting as a ninety-minute work might be for some, it becomes a not-to-be missed event for those who have been drawn into its allure.

There will be two more performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 this week; tonight, Thursday, April 18 and Saturday, April 20 2019 both at 8pm and Roy Thomson Hall

I’m not sure what appealed to me the most in the performance. I loved the tender solo by contralto soloist Marie-Nicole Lemieux with the choir of trumpets, delicate strings and oboe accompanying. There were gut-wrenching aural images of the violence in death with all one hundred musicians including six percussionists beating furiously. The work built to its astonishing finale with American soprano Joélle Harvey, Lemieux, the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers joining the orchestra in a life-affirming conclusion with all the rapturous joy that the idea of eternal life can bring. Mahler’s music is full of engaging tunes, moments of serenity, angry outbursts and ends in ecstatic bliss. Six trumpets, eight horns, two sets of timpani, two harps, organ, extra woodwinds and a battery of percussion (including a rute) added to the sixty string players for the broad range of sound colours the work demands.

Conductor Matthew Halls in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with TSO
Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, soprano Joélle Harvey in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu