Using the training I received in children’s choir, I did not move a muscle during the first four movements of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony. I sat perfectly still, staring (probably without blinking) at Yoel Levi as he, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and two soloists led the music to our inevitable entrance in the fifth movement. When it was time to stand, or Aufersteh’n (Arise), I took great pride in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus’ perfect unison. We even stood with rhythmic precision! We were the Rocketts of choruses. Every single action we took was part of the group – and that group declined in impact as soon as one individual went rogue, or stood even one millisecond behind the rest
During the performance, I greatly anticipated our first entrance, a ppp that Maestro Levi had worked diligently to perfect. As off-stage trumpets heralded our opening chorale, I recalled the extraordinary efforts we had taken in rehearsals to achieve a soft enough dynamic for him and for Mahler. We sang soft. We sang softer. Half of us whispered and half sang. Half hummed and half sang. Half of us hummed and half of us turned around backwards singing the words (an impractical solution for performance). We all lifted our folders to block our mouths
I don’t recall which solution we ended up using as a chorus, but I can remember mine: use so little air that you basically hold your breath for 22 bars
Probably not the best idea
After sitting perfect still (and mostly likely stiff and tense) for the first hour or so, I stood and held my breath for several measures, and the worst thing that could have happened did: I went rogue
My view of the stage began to narrow, so that I couldn’t see the harps or the basses. Then, the backs of the violins and cellos disappeared. Then, the fronts of the sections. Finally, it was just me and the maestro. As he led the chorus through “Arise, yes, you shall rise again, my dust, after a short rest,” I grabbed the soprano next to me (who I believe was a police officer by day) and woke up with my head in between my legs. Luckily, I came-to in enough time to sing the next entrance: “You are sown to blossom anew.
While the music lifted the souls to eternity, I remained seated and did my best to focus on Mahler and not my complete and total mortification. (Remember, I was a teenager in this storied ensemble, so I was sure that the entire world was looking at me the whole time).
After the performance, everyone did their best to convince me that it wasn’t that bad. Thanks to the police woman, I hadn’t actually fallen, but had rather been placed on my chair. My fellow choristers shared with me stories about people passing out, throwing up, and having to be hauled off during the music. And, of course, the Resurrection jokes were abundant. So, I was feeling better...
…until the next morning when the phone rang at 8am as I was getting ready for school
“Erin,” said the mother of a friend of mine in one of those beautiful southern drawls. “I saw your dreadful fall last night and wanted to make sure you were okay.” Well, I was until you called me, I thought! That night, and the night after, as the trumpets beckoned us to sing, all I could hear was “dreadful, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful” on repeat
The next week we took the work to Avery Fisher Hall. We flew on a chartered plane, rehearsed on the historic stage, and blew the audience away. However, the gong was in my right ear, so in addition to hearing “dreadful” chanting incessantly in that beautiful lilting voice, I had to prepare for each gong strike by slowly putting my right hand up to my ear. For me, there was no transcendence in that Mahler 2
Since that time, I have sung and recorded the piece, I have heard it in performance, and now, this week with the Richmond Symphony Chorus, I have prepared it. Each time, I hope that my dreadfulpavlovian response to the trumpet fanfare will subside. I yearn to hear the “auferstehen” as it was meant to be heard, as a comfort and a triumph, rather than a command to stand up after having passed out. This week’s performances have promise for a personal victory in this front. I am not nervous at all about the chorus’s ability to pull it off – heck, knock it out of the park. I don’t have to stand next to a gong. And, I know that if something were to happen, my beloved Richmond Symphony family would gently sit me down in the nearest chair and put my head between my legs. Besides, I’m conducting the offstage trumpets, so I’ll be too busy to worry about the 23 year old legacy of dread. THIS week, I’ll get dizzy in Mahler Two for the right reason – because the Resurrection Symphony is the ultimate expression of redemption, triumph, and transcendence
*** After note: I found out years later that after that “dreadful” fall, the maestro understandably did not want me to travel to Avery Fisher, fearing I would fall again, and this time on a more national stage. I was allowed to go, however, because several adults stood up for me and demanded that I be included on the tour. To know that those adults put themselves on the line for the benefit of a highschooler has deeply impacted me. I hope to always pay it forward, because although that trip had a “dreadful” underpinning to its soundtrack, it created in me the determination and fire to become a professional musician.