l-r: mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Michelle DeYoung, sopranos Erin Wall and Evelina Dobračeva, conductor Robert Spano, tenor Toby Spence, baritone Russell Braun and bass Morris Robinson. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Review: Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” brings together massive forces in a rare musical experience

Mark Gresham | 15 NOV 2019

Live performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 is a once-in-a-generation event in a city that has the resources to credibly mount one. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has now presented the work three times in its 75 year history with its Chorus: its first in May 1978, led by Robert Shaw (a performance in which I happened to participate s a member if the ASO Chorus); again in 1991 under Shaw’s direction which was then recorded for Telarc (CD-80267) in which a distant cousin, Delores Ziegler, was a mezzo-soprano soloist; and finally this week’s performances under the direction of music director Robert Spano. Needless to say, it is a work for which I had already developed a personal affinity by the time of this week’s performances — particularly the first movement, which had been a strong influence on my musical thinking as a 22 year old composer and chorister at the time of that first 1978 performance.

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Thursday’s rendition by the greatly expanded Atlanta Symphony Orchestra featured massive choral forces of the combined Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Morehouse College Glee Club, Spelman College Glee Club and Gwinnett Young Singers. The esteemed septet of soloists were sopranos Evelina Dobračeva, Erin Wall and Nicole Cabell, mezzo-sopranos Michelle DeYoung and Kelley O’Connor, tenor Toby Spence, baritone Russell Braun and bass Morris Robinson. The remaining performance at Symphony Hall on Saturday, November 16 is – to no one’s surprise – sold out.

Not quite a thousand, but at total of 464 musicians performed together on Thursday in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8. (credit: Jeff Rofman)

Not quite a thousand, but at total of 464 musicians performed together on Thursday in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. (credit: Jeff Rofman)

As a “Symphony” the Eighth is rather unconventional. There are two movements. The first is a greatly expanded sonata-allegro form in which Mahler set the 9th-century Latin hymn Veni creator spiritus (“Come Creator Spirit”). That’s the more conventional part. The second is essentially an oratorio based on the final scene of Part Two Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Whole that juxtaposition may seem incongruous at first glance, they do share a core theme: the redemptive power of love.

Nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand,” the sheer magnitude of the Eighth Symphony is impressive on its own, even if a thousand performers are not involved. In this case it was 464 in all, to cite one Facebook post about the first rehearsal of all forces combined. That was plenty. They filled the stage, with a few performers positioned elsewhere — six brass players the first balcony and Cabell, who sang the role of “Mater gloriosa” in Part II, offstage as well.

Trombones in the balcony. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Trombones in the balcony. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

In a letter to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, Mahler himself declared: “it is the greatest thing I have done so far. And so different in content and form that it is impossible to write about it. Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. It is no longer human voices, but circling planets and suns.”

It is important, however, to get past the size of the performing group, as well as the greater challenges that poses to a cohesive performance. Despite my personal overwhelming preference for the first movement, on Thursday I felt that the second movement was the better performance overall. Something didn’t entirely feel right in the first, a little disjointed for such a brilliantly-crafted movement.

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In particular the return to the recapitulation left me disappointed. The end of the development should be a buildup, particularly its final five bars (rehearsal mark 63 to 64) which acts as a giant anacrusis to the downbeat of the recap where the principal theme returns. That “downswing” in advance of striking the ball, so to speak, simply wasn’t there; that principal theme, echoing the opening of the work, simply popped into the texture without a feeling of something compelling leading up to it. That point is the movement’s keystone, the top of the structural arch that should be revelatory, emotionally electric; the moment when the heavens open. Unfortunately the feeling of that moment went missing.

That’s not to say there was not great performing involved, despite some feeling of not everything being in its place in the first movement. And  overall it was better in the longer second part, which followed the first without intermission. The enlarged chorus had greater depth to its sound, especially in the men’s sections. The soloists were excellent, and the difficult job of matching that many solo voices well for the copious ensemble singing – including instances of treacherous unisons among some at stratospheric heights called for by the score – was fortuitous. Special kudos belong to the expanded brass section, both ASO roster and extras, for their stunning work. ■