Amal Choucri Catta comes closer to Mahler
Lecture and symphonic concert: Cairo Symphony Orchestra, cond. Gilbert Kaplan; A Capella Choir and Cairo Celebration Choir, directors Maya Gvineria and Magdi Boghdadi; with Alexandra Saulska-Shulatieva, mezzo-soprano, and Iman Mustafa, soprano. Cairo Opera House, 25 March, 8pm
Until the night of 25 March Gilbert Kaplan was known only to the privileged few who had come to listen to his pre-concert lecture on the life and music of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler at Cairo Opera's Main Hall.
Kaplan is considered one of the leading interpreters of Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection", and is the author of an award-winning illustrated biography, The Mahler Album. His extensive writings on Mahler have appeared in many publications, ranging from London's The Musical Times to The New York Times. He has conducted over 50 leading orchestras around the world and is the recipient of many honours. He serves on the boards of several musical institutions, including the Carnegie Hall, and is a member of faculty at the Juilliard School. Kaplan has given pre-concert lectures around the world, accompanied by the projection of rare photographs.
On 25 March his pre-concert lecture took place one hour before the musical performance. The projections on the giant screen, the Arabic translation and the music had attracted a respectable audience. During a previous press conference Kaplan had told me: "After my conference, local audiences will know Mahler as well as they know Tchaikovsky". He was right. The audience appeared to enjoy every minute of the multi-media event and when the lecture was over, everyone returned for the concert.
The house was full to overflowing as choir and musicians marched onto the stage to perform Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C-minor, the "Resurrection", for soprano, mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra. The first observation to make of this symphony is its sheer size. It is scored for an enormous orchestra, many extra wind and brass instruments, two harps, seven percussionists, solo voices, chorus, organ and a large body of strings. Kaplan had Mahler in his hands, in his baton, in his heart. The way he made use of his baton was eloquently evocative of Mahler, who "would let his baton shoot forward suddenly, like the tongue of a poisonous serpent", as the Viennese music critic, Max Graf once said, adding, "he was full of movement, like a blazing flame". The same could be said of Kaplan, who gave his audience a stunning version of Mahler's composition.
Born on 7 July 1860 in Kaliste, on the borders of Bohemia and Moravia, into a Jewish family of distillers and innkeepers, Gustav Mahler spent much of his childhood in Iglau, where he was exposed to different kinds of music. He showed great precocity on the piano and gave his first solo recital in Iglau. In 1875 he entered the Vienna Conservatoire where he wrote chamber music and won several piano prizes. He conducted at several opera houses, gaining a reputation for his exciting Wagner interpretations, and in 1891 was appointed conductor of the Hamburg opera. In 1897 he converted to Roman Catholicism to become Kapellmeister of the Vienna Opera, which would not accept a Jewish director. He remained there until 1907 when he resigned, accepting an offer from New York's Metropolitan Opera. He had married Alma Schindler, who is said to have had affairs with Oskar Kokoshka, Gustav Klimt and others. After Mahler's death she married the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and, at a later date, the novelist Franz Werfel, author of The Song of Bernadette. She died in America in 1964, aged 85.
Alma Schindler gave Gustav Mahler two daughters: the elder died aged at the age of four, prior to Mahler's departure for the United States. From 1907 he lived under the shadow of death from a heart ailment, which led in 1911 to a severe infection and to his premature death on 18 May in the same year. He was buried in Vienna's Grinzinger Friedhof, beside his daughter Maria. His grave is simply marked "Mahler": "Anyone who comes to look for me will know who I was," the composer had said, "and the rest do not need to know".
Mahler's greatness as a conductor was never contested, and for many years his compositions were regarded with fanatical admiration by a handful of disciples, and equally fanatical scorn by a larger section of musicians. However, the endeavours of several conductors and critics gradually led to a revival of interest. His works entered the repertories of the world's leading orchestras, reaching public acclaim. Mahler once said "my time will come" and, according to Gilbert Kaplan, it certainly has. He was one of the last of the great romantics and, at the same time, one of the first of the modernists.
At Cairo Opera's Main Hall Kaplan "resurrected" Gustav Mahler twice: once through the extraordinary multi-media presentation with more than 100 projected slides and 30 recorded musical excerpts, and the second time through the outstanding performance of Mahler's second symphony. It was an extremely emotional show: Kaplan took his audience, musicians, choir and soloists through the second symphony's gigantic movements with extraordinary sensitivity, leading all through "hope and despair, belief and doubt, triumph and tragedy, beauty and bleakness".
The symphony's first three movements are solely instrumental: the mezzo-soprano comes in, solo, in the "Urlicht", or "primal light", of the fourth movement. Superbly sung by the Russian Alexandra Saulska-Shulatieva, who went through the lyrics with profound feeling, the movement preluded the finale, the "resurrection" of the fifth movement, with chorus and soprano Iman Mustafa and the entire orchestra depicting the terror and the glory of the "Judgement day", when death is overcome and the choir sings "I shall die in order to live". The movement culminates in a triumphant fortissimo as the house resounded to calls of "bravissimo" and long applause. On stage and off stage Kaplan had conquered each and every one in the opera's Main Hall. The performance was sublime.