Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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April 11, 2019

May 11, 2019 Program Notes

Born Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, now Germany, 23 February 1685; died 14 April 1759, London.
Messiah: “Lift Up Your Heads, Oh Ye Gates”
The oratorio Messiah was composed between 22 August and 14 September 1741, and premiered in Dublin, at the Great Music Hall, led by the composer, 13 April 1742. Handel revised the score numerous times to accommodate available singers and instruments. Tonight’s performance of “Lift Up Your Heads, Oh Ye Gates” includes 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, organ, strings and chorus. Duration: 3 minutes.

FIRST SSC PERFORMANCE of Messiah with the SSO: 11 December 1994, First United Lutheran Church of Sheboygan, Guy Victor Bordo conducting.The SSO first performed Messiah 3 December 1983, Manuel Prestamo conducting, with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Oratorio Chorus.

The joyful chorus “Lift Up Your Heads,” from about midway through Part 2 of Messiah, is based on words from Psalm 24 that many Christians associate with the Ascension of Jesus following the Resurrection. Handel begins with just the sopranos and altos proclaiming: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in!” The tenors and basses ask, “Who is this King of glory?” and the high voices reply, “The Lord, strong and mighty!” Now the altos join both the low voices, who repeat the proclamation, and the sopranos as they repeat the question. This time the answer is “The Lord of hosts.”

Finally, all the choral voices interweave as they exclaim, “He is the King of glory and Lord of hosts!” Handel takes full advantage of the “o” sounds in “glory,” “Lord” and “hosts” in setting the resounding King James Bible text. 


Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 22 September 1961.
Music at Night, for chorus and orchestra.
Composed 2018 for the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its 100th anniversary season. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, glockenspiel, triangle, suspended cymbal, vibraphone, tubular bells, harp, celesta, strings and chorus. Duration is 12 minutes.

THIS IS THE WORLD PREMIERE PERFORMANCE ofMusic at Night. Previous SSO performances of music by Michael Torke: Bright Blue Music (Prestamo, 1989), Javelin (Kevin McMahon, 2011).

A serenade or nocturne is a piece or suite of music that in centuries past would have been performed outdoors during the evening or night (Italian sera or notte). Such “night music” is performed in the last act of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as the lovers Lorenzo and Jessica and their patroness Portia enjoy the latter’s Venetian garden: “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!/Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.” Ralph Vaughan Williams based his enchanting 1938 Serenade to Music for voices and orchestra on the words of this scene.

Michael Torke wrote the incidental music for a New York Public Theater production of The Merchant of Venice in 1994, and in 2018 found himself intersecting with Shakespeare’s text once again. Having been commissioned to write a piece in celebration of the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra’s 100th anniversary, he learned that Serenade to Music had at one point been considered for the anniversary season. Inspired afresh, Torke tells us, by Shakespeare’s “beautiful, potent words,” he “thought it might be interesting to compose a new piece using this same immortal poetry. I strove to use the chorus, along with the orchestra, in such a way to reflect the ‘concord of sounds’ that the young lovers discuss.”

The composer adds: “I would like to thank the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and its music director Kevin McMahon for giving me the opportunity to help celebrate this orchestra’s 100 year birthday.”


Born Kalischt (Kaliste), now Czech Republic, 7 July 1860; died Vienna, 18 May, 1911.
Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)
Composed 1888-94 and premiered 13 December 1895, the composer leading the Berlin Philharmonic. The score calls for 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th doubling English horn),  3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 Eb clarinets (2nd doubling clarinet), 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th doubling contrabassoon), 6 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 players), bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tams, switches, untuned bells, 2 harps, organ, strings, soprano and alto soloists, and chorus, plus offstage 4 horns, 4 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and triangle. Performance time about 80 minutes.

THIS IS THE FIRST SSO PERFORMANCE of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Previous SSO Mahler performances: Symphony No. 1 (Bordo, 1995; Andrews Sill, 2007; McMahon, 2018), Symphony No. 3 (Bordo, 1997), Symphony No. 4 (Prestamo, 1989; McMahon, 2011).

Even while he was revising his First Symphony after “tryouts” in various cities, Gustav Mahler was working on a monumental Second Symphony that he would subtitle “Resurrection.” The new work achieved final form in five movements, including a brief fourth movement consisting of a song for alto voice and an epic finale with not only passages for offstage brass and percussion but a climax featuring a chorus plus soprano and alto solos.

Rarely performed in the first decades after Mahler’s death, the “Resurrection” Symphony was initially championed by only a few dedicated conductors like Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter. But since the 1960s, with the help of a younger generation of conductors like Leonard Bernstein, a surge of enthusiasm for Mahler’s music has risen and not in the least subsided. Although Top-Ten lists and auction prices are hardly a true measure of greatness, it is worth mentioning that a 2016 BBC poll of 151 conductors ranked the “Resurrection” as fifth in a list of “Greatest Symphonies of All Time.” (The others, in ascending order: Mahler’s Ninth, Mozart’s “Jupiter,” Beethoven’s Ninth and Beethoven’s “Eroica.”) Also in 2016 Mahler’s manuscript copy of the “Resurrection” score sold for over $6 million.

In 1888, just after completing his “Symphonic Poem”—the label he initially gave his First Symphony--Mahler was composing a second symphonic poem in one movement he titled Totenfeier (“Death Ceremony” or “Funeral Rites”). But his manuscript also listed an alternate title: “Symphony in C Minor, Movement 1.” It wasn’t until five years later that he wrote two new and very different movements, a minuet-like Andante and a sardonic Scherzo, while revising Totenfeier, and began to think about using a chorus in the finale, though he worried over being accused of a “superficial imitation” of Beethoven’s Ninth. Undecided about a text, he felt a flash of inspiration upon hearing a Lutheran hymn setting of “The Resurrection,” a 1758 poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, sung by choirboys at the funeral of the great conductor Hans von Bülow. Choosing the first lines of the poem Mahler added his own words to provide the choral conclusion. Finally, in what can only be called a stroke of genius, he preceded the expansive Finale with a very short “song” movement, “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”), the words taken from a folk poem.

1. Allegro maestoso. For his first three symphonies Mahler wrote elaborate “programs”—printed narratives that would accompany performances. But he ultimately discarded these programs, preferring to let listeners use their own imaginations. Still, especially in the case of the Second Symphony, considering its subtitle and its texts with their explicit theme of eternal life, not to mention the extreme dramatic contrasts between and within the movements, one can’t help but wonder what narrative Mahler might have had in mind. His early comments on the first movement reveal that he was imagining either the death of a hero or the feelings of bystanders at his funeral, wondering if death is really the end, if life has meaning, if there can be hope.

A listener could try to trace an emotional arc through this movement, bar by bar —or could analyze it abstractly as a brilliantly constructed sonata form on a grand scale. But most listeners prefer to be absorbed by the sheer power and variety of the music, its hope and despair, joy and sorrow, grandiose and intimate moments. In the first three minutes alone, we go from a snarling outburst from the lower strings to a rather brisk and ominous funeral march that climaxes in a plaintive cry from the woodwinds—followed by a meltingly lovely melody in the violins, seeming to express hope and longing for the eternal—until the mood darkens and the outburst from the lower strings is heard once more.

And so it goes throughout the movement, though the relentless march rhythm seldom disappears for long. During the middle (development) portion, the brass briefly introduce new themes that will be heard again in the finale. Near the end of the movement the tumult subsides, seemingly in exhaustion, except for a last violent descending scale before the quiet last notes.  

2. Andante moderato. In utter contrast to the stormy first movement the second is mostly gentle, with a three-quarter-time rhythm reminiscent of a minuet. In several places Mahler writes in the score: “Don’t hurry!” His early program proposed that this movement is a flashback to the dead hero’s “happy moments” and a “sad recollection of his youth and lost innocence.” The mood does become restless in places, and there is one anguished outburst, but for the most part tranquility reigns, and there are lovely passages where two melodies are in counterpoint. Toward the end the main theme is played by the strings in delicate pizzicato.

3. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung. This symphonic Scherzo is marked “With restfully flowing motion,” but the triple-time meter is notably faster than that of the second movement, and the mood is sometimes mocking, spooky, almost sinister. It is brilliantly orchestrated, with prominent woodwinds and sound effects like a bundle of switches hitting a drum edge and string players using the wood of their bows.

While Mahler was composing this movement, he was also writing a set of songs for voice and orchestra, based on folk poems in a collection called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (From the Youth’s Magic Horn). One ballad tells the story of St. Anthony of Padua, who, finding his church empty one Sunday, decides to deliver his sermon to the fish in the local stream. The fish enjoy the sermon but immediately go back to their naughty ways, the pike stealing, the eels lusting. When he was composing his symphony’s Scherzo Mahler used the same melody and swirling accompaniment (suggesting a flowing stream) as his “St. Anthony” song. Still, Mahler was not just aiming for a playful musical “joke” (scherzo in Italian). According to his program, the Scherzo paints a darker picture of someone undergoing a crisis of faith, fearing that life has no meaning in a world that is nothing but shallow appearances.

The Scherzo has two especially important moments absent from the “St. Anthony” song. One is a lovely, nostalgic, very Austrian tune for trumpets, about two-thirds into the movement. The other, soon after, is an acceleration to a climax that Mahler called a “cry of despair.” As the climax subsides, the original rhythm of the movement seems to break apart in fragments, but it gradually resumes, taking us to a quiet conclusion.

4. “Urlicht.” Sehr feierlich aber schlicht. Another poem Mahler took from Des Knaben Wunderhorn was “Urlicht” (Primal or Primeval Light), but this time, rather than expand his song for orchestra alone he used it intact, for low female voice. Again the contrast between movements could hardly be more strong: “Urlicht” is a a childlike expression of faith rather than doubt, and is sincere and heartfelt rather than restless and mocking. In its brevity and simplicity it will also contrast the complexity and grandeur of the Finale. Mahler’s tempo marking calls for the movement to be “very solemn but simple,” schlicht meaning plain or unpretentious.

After the soloist’s entrance with an address to a “little red rose,” we hear a solemn brass chorale. When the singer returns it is with heartbreaking directness: “Mankind lives in greatest need, Mankind lives in greatest pain, I would rather be in Heaven.” The mood becomes sweet yet strange as the singer comes upon a broad path and a little angel (Engelein), but the angel wants her to turn back. The singer replies, with rising passion, that she is from God and wants to return to God, the loving God, who will light her pathway to eternal blessed life (ewig selig Leben). The melodic line rising to these last words is surely one of the most transcendent moments in all of Mahler’s music.

5. Finale. The peace at the end of “Urlicht” is shattered with another “cry of despair,” though this time it’s followed first by an ominous three-note theme in the brass, then quieter music that hints of the Resurrection themes to be sung by the choir later on. These shifts of mood are only the first of many in this complex movement, taking us from ecstatic hope to terror at the thought of Apocalypse to blissful calm and back again. Several musical themes will find their true meaning only in the final choral portion of the symphony.

The Finale has too many striking passages and transitions to mention them all here, but among the highlights are the following:

  • Offstage horns are heard in a solemn fanfare that seems to be a call from another world. The orchestra responds with quiet intonations of the Resurrection themes.
  • A theme of intense yearning is expressed by flute and English horn. It will be repeated later on by solo trombone and, later still, will find human voice in the alto soloist’s “O glaube!”—Oh, believe!”
  • The yearning theme is answered by a chorale version of the Resurrection music, rising to a thrilling outpouring from the whole orchestra.
  • The ominous three-note theme returns, followed by a stirring march, at first wild, then joyfully determined (marching on to glory, one might think), but there is a shift toward terror too, until an apocalyptic collapse.
  • The yearning theme (trombone) is followed by an astounding passage in which offstage brass and percussion play separate music from onstage, as if a parallel universe were trying to break into ours.
  • Following an even more apocalyptic passage, the solemn offstage fanfares return, but now with onstage flute and piccolo imitating birdcalls: one of the most mystical passages of the whole symphony.
  • And finally the chorus is heard, a capella, quietly singing “Rise up, yes, rise up you will, my dust, after a short rest.”

From this point the chorus, two soloists and full orchestra (joined by an organ near the end) bring the symphony inexorably to its greatest heights.

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