For the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season opener Thursday, music director Robert Spano played up the fire in his interpretation of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” a thrilling work that shows off the sheer power of an orchestra stacked with extra players.
Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, a perennial guest artist, and newcomer soprano Laura Tatulescu joined the symphony and the ASO Chorus onstage.
The evening was a celebration of new beginnings. On what would have been the 70th season opener last September, ASO musicians and chorus members congregated outside the hall in concert dress for a silent protest of a messy lockout. Currently, the ASO is relishing a sunny financial outlook and the announcement of a new administrative leader, Jennifer Barlament, who is slated to join as executive director in January. Free pre-concert champagne buoyed the convivial atmosphere.
After the discord and rancor of 2014’s labor negotiations, a resurrection symphony is appropriate. The musicians played with unabashed joy; it was delightful to hear the orchestra’s strong, vibrant tone. Spano picked a spirited tempo for the Mahler, giving even the somber passages a lively undercurrent.
Mahler symphonies have been in regular rotation at the ASO. In the past six seasons, Spano has conducted the symphony in readings of Mahler’s Third and Fourth symphonies, and Donald Runnicles, the ASO’s principal guest conductor, conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 with O’Connor last season. The decision to program the 86-minute “Resurrection” on opening night speaks to its emotional heft and accessibility.
The programmatic symphony tells the story of a fallen hero, the protagonist of Mahler’s First Symphony, and his ascension to a higher plane. “Resurrection” begins with shimmering, tremulous violins, but the funereal first movement is given drive and purpose by the thundering cello and bass section. Thursday, the low strings played this key opening low-string passage with vigor, offering a hint of the passion and emotional intensity that would carry through the piece.
The horn section, which played with a full, round bell tone, is the champion of the first three movements. The horn-heavy score calls for the musicians to blend well and function, at times, like an organ. The ASO players worked hard to show the beauty in Mahler’s horn writing, though a bit of fatigue might have started to set in by the fifth movement.
O’Connor’s and Tatulescu’s voices are well suited to the work, which calls for them to both sing solo and as a duet. When singing together, the musicians affected a dark, luxurious vocal timbre. In the fourth movement, O’Connor’s solo voice took on a rosy, rich grain; Tatulescu’s soprano passages in the fifth movement soared agilely above the orchestra and chorus.
In the end, redemption comes from the ASO Chorus, arriving as a band of angels at the end of the tale. Though not heard until the last half of the final movement, the massive chorus, arguably the ASO’s best asset, quietly sat on stage like a crouching tiger ready to pounce. Instead, the chorus entered with a haunting, ethereal tone, a perfectly blended, other-worldly sound that offered a reprieve from the tension of the earlier movements.
Nothing is more appropriate for opening weekend than the text for the chorus. In their final, full-throated breath, the singers proclaim, “Rise again, yes, rise again. Will you, my heart, in an instant!” Sung in fortissimo splendor, the final blow is a breathtaking climax to a piece full of emotional highs.
The ASO isn’t in rebuilding mode — two lockouts in four years only slowed the ensemble’s growth — but the path to fully regain its previous luster began in earnest Thursday with a joyful resurrection.
Mahler Symphony No. 2
8 p.m. Sept. 17. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Sept. 19. Tickets: $20-$79. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.
Matinee performance at 3 p.m. Sept. 20. Tickets: $65-$75. University of Georgia Performing Arts Center, 230 River Road, Athens.