RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in National Concert Hall, on 14 September 2018

It’s a snug fit on stage at the National Concert Hall for the opening concert of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s 2018/19 season. No fewer than seven French horns on stage for the opening is the cherry on the cake of the huge brass section; bells and mouthpieces flashing gold and silver onto an equally large woodwind section and more strings than you could shake a stick at. There’s no messing around here: the sole item on the programme is Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’.

The gravity of the first movement hits you from the first notes in the low strings. American conductor Robert Trevino draws the symphony’s landscape with his baton; at times lush, dark, and brooding, at others sprightly and uplifting—but always dramatic.

An off-stage ensemble of brass and timpani is a sonic curiosity of the symphony’s final movements, giving a sense of there being another world out there, somewhere. Detached from reality. Beyond reach. In the car-park, maybe. A slight drawback of this was more visual than aural: some of the French horn players had to work their way to the door from the centre of the orchestra mid-way through a movement, which took attendees as much by surprise as the rip-roaring climax of the third movement. Nevertheless, credit is due to the solo instrumentalists and also to the choir whose stoic poise for the first four movements and dramatic singing during the fifth was surely what Mahler had in mind.

It is an interesting tactic to programme Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony as the opener for this year’s season, with the sheer number of musicians on stage offering us a glimpse into a utopian future for the NSO. The RTÉ-commissioned Boaden review published last April—examining the function, past, present, and future of RTÉ’s two orchestras—mentions Mahler by name after describing orchestras ‘as a cornerstone of Western musical culture during the past 200 years’. Cabinet agreement during the summer to place the NSO under the remit of the National Concert Hall is perhaps the opening gambit to secure such a future for the NSO, but, whatever may transpire, the opening concert of this year’s series certainly communicates more than just musical undertones.

NSO patron President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina, and the packed hall were treated to soloists Orla Boylan and Jennifer Johnston, and 130 voices of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, the NCH Organ at the limbs of Fergal Caulfield, and the augmented orchestra—joined on the choir gallery by the off-stage brass musicians during the last movement—brought the evening’s concert to a thrilling close.

In a letter of December 1895, Mahler described the first rehearsal of Symphony No. 2 in words which we could apply to this performance, too:

“…So everything went off well, beyond all expectation. The performers were so enthusiastic and so carried away that of their own accord they found the right expression for everything. If only you could have heard it!”

 

Programme
Mahler Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

Robert Trevino (Conductor)
Orla Boylan (Soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (Mezzo-soprano)
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
RTÉ Philharmonic Choir (Guest chorus-master: Desmond Earley)

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