A Shout-Out to Mahler's Eighth

A sellout audience and a cast of hundreds: The view from one of the chorus positions.
A sellout audience and a cast of hundreds: The view from one of the chorus positions. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

And so, with hundreds of choristers, eight vocal soloists, pealing bells, booming pipe organ and a stage so densely packed with musicians that there is scarcely room to move, the 2005-06 National Symphony Orchestra subscription season comes to an exuberant conclusion. It's been a very good year for the NSO, with guest appearances by such conductors as Christoph von Dohnanyi, Lorin Maazel and Kurt Masur, all of whom, in their own distinct manners, have taken the orchestra to new levels. But last night at the Kennedy Center it was NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin's turn to preside over a rare performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand" (this particular rendition makes use of a "mere" 500 people).

Some of it was splendid, some of it was expedient and sloppy. Still, it is hard to imagine anybody who played, sang or listened to this mammoth work walking back out into the world again unmoved.

The Mahler Eighth is a piece that one takes to strongly or not at all. A lot of Mahlerphiles mistrust it, finding the jubilance forced and overstated and the steady outpouring of sonic opulence more than a little vulgar. Those listeners who swear by the Mahler Sixth or Ninth or even the torso of the unfinished Tenth prize this composer for the intensity of his pessimism. You've heard of feel-good music? Well, those symphonies are feel-bad music -- long, haunted studies in introversion that exact a profound subjective reaction from sympathetic admirers.

Meanwhile, right smack in the middle of all this angst, Mahler created the Symphony No. 8, which is not merely "happy" but charged with a manic and overwhelming joy. The opening movement is a 25-minute setting of an 8th-century Christian hymn, "Veni creator spiritus" ("Come, Creator Spirit") -- a wildly busy, crazy hallelujah for voices and orchestra in full thrall.

The second movement, which lasts a full hour, is nothing less than a complete musical setting of the metaphysical final scene from Goethe's "Faust" -- with roles for "Blessed Children," "More Perfect Angels," "Chorus Mysticus" and a "Pater Ecstaticus," the last of whom, the author suggests helpfully, is supposed to declaim his lines while "floating up and down." (One begins to understand why the second act of "Faust" is so seldom staged!) I love this music, unfettered as it is. And there were moments when Slatkin and the NSO did it up proud. The glorious "Alles Vergangliche" chorus starts from nothing and grows and grows until the whole hall seems ready to levitate. Slatkin conducted this with surety and poetry, and he illuminated many attractive orchestral details along the way (the harps might have come out of Disney). Yet he spent too much of his time urging on his forces, when what this music really needs is a little restraint and selective discrimination. It seemed the performance of an ardent enthusiast, rather than a fully persuasive advocate.

It was a mistake to place the vocal soloists toward the back of the stage, effectively making them shout to be heard over the choruses and orchestra. It was a bad idea to play the opening movement with such a minimum of dynamic variation: Slatkin kept everything so loud so much of the time, there was nowhere to go in the final crescendo, which ought to be one of the most exciting minutes of music in the world but here seemed just a little more of the same. Moreover, it was obvious that another rehearsal or two might have helped communication enormously and removed any number of ragged entrances.

Still, even a middling Mahler Eighth is something pretty special and it will not do to be too hard on Slatkin, for conducting this work is rather like trying to run a medium-size city while standing in one place. Last night, nobody seemed entirely ready to go. The two remaining performances -- tonight and tomorrow night at 8, both of them sold out -- may well be more comfortable.

No fewer than five choral groups participated eagerly, if not always immaculately, in the performance -- the Cathedral Choral Society, the Children's Chorus of Washington, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the Master Chorale of Washington and the Washington Chorus. The hardworking soloists, most of whom sounded unwontedly strained and stentorian, were sopranos Jane Eaglen, Christine Brewer and Christine Brandes (whose voice soared sweetly from the balcony as the "Mater Gloriosa"), mezzo-sopranos Stacey Rishoi and Sally Burgess, tenor Donald Litaker (a blissful "Doctor Marianus"), and baritones Obed Urena and Donnie Ray Albert.

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