Friday, November 15, 2019

An Eighth to Cherish...

Gustav Mahler- Symphony No 8 (Symphony of a Thousand)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Atlanta Symphony Chorus
Robert Spano, Conductor

Sopranos Evelina Dobrańćeva, Erin Wall and Nicole Cabell; mezzo-sopranos Michelle DeYoung and Kelley O’Connor; tenor Toby Spence; baritone Russell Braun; and bass Morris Robinson

Mahler’s 1906-Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major is a major horal work in Western Art music.   It is often called “Symphony of a Thousand,” a title eschewed by the composer. It is in two parts: Part I is based on a 9th century Latin text for the Christian celebration of Pentecost and Part II is a setting of passages from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust.  While differing in derivation, the two parts have a common theme of redemption by love, which is reflected in musical themes appearing in both sections.  While positively received and still played today, some writers say that it is inferior to his earlier works.  The symphony does not appear to draw upon the folk idioms used in the composer’s earlier works, nor does it appear to dwell on scenes of death or loss.  It does seem qualitatively different; the orchestration is lush and full; it does not have an ironic march, or a child’s melody played out of tune.  It seems like an amalgam of oratorio, cantata, motet and lied, layered on to a rich symphonic based. It also is quite long, clocking in at 80 minutes.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) last performed the Symphony in 1991.  The logistics of gathering some 450 musicians and singers of a wide range of ages, rehearsing them, and performing the massive work twice over a weekend is surely a daunting task.  Kudos to Maestro Spano Spano, Norman Mackenzie, Director of Choruses, Lynn Urda, Director of the Young Singers, David Morrow, Director of Morehouse, and Kevin Johson from Spelman for undertaking this monumental performance.  It was a triumph of large-scale music-making and the work’s humanity and richness were undeniable.  This was a standard-setting performance for all involved.

The soloists gave powerful performances.  Sopranos Doraceva and Wall have tremendous power.  The latter has a rich sounding voice, while the former has a slimmer sound, but no less potent. Soprano Cabell was stationed in a balcony and her beautifully smooth voice hovered majestically in the auditorium. Mezzos DeYoung and O’Connor are concert hall stalwarts and greatly admired for their burnished voices.  DeYoung is quite powerful while O’Connor’s strength is in subtlety.  Baritone Braun had great projection.  Morris Robinson was one of the few bass voices to have appeared with the ASO who held his own against the full power of the orchestra and chorus.  Tenor Spence’s voice was overwhelmed early on, but by the time he soloed in Part II his voice found a strong footing.  All of the choruses were well-prepared and their sound was well integrated. 

The ASO musicians played inspiringly.  Concertmaster Coucheron and new principal viola Zhenwei Shi performed with aplomb.  Juan Ramirez excelled at the mandolin, and the digital organ added heft when needed.  The brass group stationed in the loge area added richness and excitement. Every section of the orchestra seemed inspired and focused.  This was the ASO at its best.

The only negative to the evening was Symphony Hall.  It is so bright sounding that when everyone was playing/singing forte, the sound verged on ear-drum overload.  This was particularly notable in the first part, where Mahler did not shy away from writing to create a big sound.  It was much less of an issue in the second part.

Yet, in all, the performances were stellar and the music is sublime.  Though the passages derived from Goethe were a bit odd to modern sensibilities, the second part has some of the most gorgeous orchestral passages imaginable.  It is wonderful to be able to sit back, shut down one’s critical ear, and simply luxuriate in Mahler’s wondrous music. 

If you are lucky enough to have a ticket for Saturday night’s performance, don’t even think of missing it!

Photos courtesy of Jeff Roffman:

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