in: Reviews

August 10, 2015

Mahler Apotheosized Before Thousands

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Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (people seldom mention it anymore, but it’s in E-flat major) was the last Mahler work to be premiered during the composer’s lifetime (first performed under the composer’s baton in 1910), and also the only one to have been an instant hit. Its nickname, “Symphony of a Thousand” was given by the impresario for the premiere, Emil Gutmann, and though Mahler disapproved of it, it was quite literally true on that original occasion, since as the vintage Michael Steinberg program note that accompanied Saturday’s Tanglewood performance pointed out, there were 858 singers, 171 instrumentalists, plus Mahler, making 1,030. The symphony also seems to be the first one to be choral in its entirety.

All of Mahler’s symphonies had extra-musical literary or philosophical foundations, but in this one Mahler went beyond even himself, intending to create an entire universe devoted to celebrating the creative and redemptive force of love, and in doing so conjoined two unlikely and disparate texts, the medieval hymn to the Holy Spirit Veni creator spiritus and the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, Part II, wherein Goethe turned the moral of the medieval Faust tale on its head by arranging Faust’s heavenly redemption. Having an extended cantata at the end of a symphony was not entirely without precedent—Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony does it—but the quasi-operatic setting of a dramatic scene was unique. That said, the inherent classicist in Mahler could not be satisfied without providing some kind of structure, and although it lasts in most performances for nearly half an hour, the first movement is in proper sonata form, with both its principal themes being gradually worked into the finale to furnish not only philosophical but structural unity to the whole (with the leaping interval of a seventh in the principal theme converted to a ninth to signify the ultimate triumph). Pretty cool!

The performance Saturday, conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, came on the occasion of the Leonard Bernstein memorial concert, capping the summer’s Tanglewood Music Center program. The orchestra consisted of the TMC Orchestra, made up of the student “fellows” of the Center, augmented by a number of Boston Symphony players. The three participating choruses were the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Chorus, and the American Boychoir. The vocal soloists were Erin Wall, Christine Goerke and Erin Morley, sopranos (taking the roles of Magna peccatrix, Una poenitentium and Mater gloriosa, respectively, in the second part), Mihoko Fujimura and Jane Henschel, mezzos (Mulier Samaritana and Maria Aegypiaca, with Fujimura coming in at the last minute to replace Lioba Braun), Klaus Florian Vogt, tenor (Doctor Marianus), Matthias Goerne, baritone (Pater ecstaticus), and Ain Anger, bass (Pater profundus). Lucky Bostonians were able to see all this on the big screen in Copley Square (do let us know how it came off, those of you who did).

With big forces and big ideas such as Mahler packed into this symphony, one would expect a massive impact in the performance, and in this case one would not have been disappointed. Beginning with a massive blast from the Æolian-Skinner organ, the first movement opened with a bright, pointed and piercing entry from the chorus, with a propulsion, partly resulting from Nelsons’s charging tempo, that never slackened, even when the pace did. Nelsons’s famously kinetic conducting style has nowhere been put to better use than in his carefully articulated gestures to chorus and orchestra, shaping every detail (and showing the audience just how he was doing it, a not insignificant communication in itself). There was clarity in every moment, even the most thunderous. The soloists, whose placement at the front of the stage rather than in front of the chorus was, we were told, a nearly last-minute idea, could not otherwise have cut through the choral and orchestral sound, but they certainly did, brilliantly in the case of Wall and Goerke with powerful tessituras and not a hint of screechiness.

Andris Nelsons, the TMCO, the TFC, and soloists (Hilary Scott)

Andris Nelsons and the TMCO and TFC and soloists (Hilary Scott)

One can understand the practical reasons for doing so, for the audience as well as for the performers, but the decision to take an intermission after the first movement had the inevitable effect of dulling the emotional continuity of the symphony, not the least being the contrast between the blaring end of the first movement and the incomparable hush at the beginning of the second. That opening was spine-tinglingly spooky, with Nelsons bringing out a carefully gradated stepwise long-distance crescendo and maintaining admirable tautness while doing so. This scene from Faust gave the soloists much more to do, dramatically and musically, than in the more conventionally structured first movement, and they were all admirable, with superb diction and expressive dramatic projection. Vogt in particular, whose Doctor Marianus had the most extensive part, was beatific and evocative. The choruses, too, brought sublimity to many of their passages, and in particular the children’s choir, representing the spirits of those who had died at birth, were strong when called upon (really only at their entrance) and later supplicating and consoling with purity and innocence. Finally, Morley, positioned high up in the rafters stage right (many audience members searched in vain to see where that ethereal voice was coming from) delivered the Mater gloriosa with stunning purity in an elegant coloratura. We’re told it takes fully six minutes to clamber down from that position, so Morley had to wait till the second curtain call for her deserved kudos. Nelsons held up the score during the applause, a “tradition” (if it is that) started by Webern when he conducted the work in the 1920s.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

6 Comments

  1. Great review!

    The TMC orchestra was a combination of Fellows intermixed with a few BSO mentors, but all the instrumental solos were played by Fellows. Here were a few of the standout winds: Kelly Zimba, principal flute; Johanna Gruskin, piccolo solos
    Alex Kinmouth, principal oboe (from Carlisle, MA); Sarah Sutherland, principal horn; John Turman, 2nd horn; and Ansel Norris, principal trumpet. Steven Chang was the able concertmaster (seen in the photo between the two altos) and Aaron Ludwig led the cello section: both contributed moving solos.

    The choruses were prepared by John Oliver (TFC), Ann Howard Jones (24 BUTI singers), and Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (24 American Boychoir members).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — August 10, 2015 at 10:21 pm

  2. Alex Kinmonth will be starting as the principal oboe of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the fall at the age of 21, having graduated from Juilliard in May. I had the privilege of accompanying him about five years ago in the Mozart Oboe Concerto for a competition, his technique quite firmly in place already, and his musicality has done nothing but grow since then.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — August 11, 2015 at 10:45 am

  3. Thanks to Laura for adding the list of orchestral soloists, which she had given me before but which I didn’t include because the review would start looking like a catalogue. However, seeing it again did remind me that I had wanted to mention Steven Chang, whose solos were especially effective in that peculiarly vernacular way in which Mahler wrote violin solos.

    Comment by Vance Koven — August 11, 2015 at 11:15 am

  4. What astonished me was how quiet the audience for most of this. I was truly afraid that the audience would be as rude as some other concerts this season and last. But, no, they were very well behaved, with no fidgeting and talking and cell phones going off. It almost restored my faith in T’wood, except that I had to sit in Section 9, a $66 seat, when I couldn’t truly afford it — but I didn’t want those g–damned video screens in my face.

    Nelsons does swing and sway a lot, but it seemed it was to draw the music out of the players as clearly as possible, with no Bernsteinean hyper-self-indulgence. This was a memorable night indeed.

    Comment by Don Drewecki — August 12, 2015 at 11:04 am

  5. A special point to be made regarding Nelsons performance of the Mahler 8th -was in a carefully conceived approach to the less dramatic aspects of the score,i. e., the tender supplications of woodwind solos, and in particular, taking the prepared choruses under John Oliver and bringing them to a higher ecstatic level-the soto voce of the voices as sculpted by Nelsons baton-less hands –
    (especially in the ‘Chorus Mysticus’) seemed to bring all human breathing and cardiac response to
    a virtual standstill. An incredible musical experience.

    Hopefully, the BSO will see fit to archive the video of the performance to Blue-Ray-as they did with Nelsons inaugural concert with the BSO last fall.

    Comment by Ron Barnell — August 15, 2015 at 2:01 pm

  6. Mr. Barnell, the video of this Mahler Eighth will be available for viewing on the BSO website in a few days (the audio folks are doing a bit of remixing first); it should remain up for a year. As for a DVD release, it’s quite likely that the Eighth will return fairly soon in Boston performances with the BSO, which would be recorded (either audio-only or audio+video) for commercial release.

    Somehow your expression “prepared choruses under John Oliver” strikes me as funny. It brings to mind John Cage’s “prepared piano,” with the strings adorned with a variety of hardware (bolts, loose wires, and other jangly bits). I’m not sure we would have been happy singing that way!

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — August 17, 2015 at 8:27 am

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