Back from Japan, the National Symphony returned to the Kennedy Center triumphantly last night to play the Mahler Eighth Symphony under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf. While the orchestra has played the mighty work twice in the past in Washington Cathedral under Paul Callaway's baton, this was the first time the music has been played in the Kennedy Center.
The Choral Arts Society, enlarged for the occasion and faultlessly by Norman Scribner joined with a children's chorus equally well trained by Robert Shafer, while an added brass choir fulfilled Mahler's directions by playing from the back balcony of the hall.
Seven soloists proved of unusual excellence in filling the heavy demands laid down by the composer: sopranos Gianna Rolandi and Susan Wyner; mezzo Claudine Carlson and contralto Mira Zaka, tenor Gene Tucker, baritone Victor Braun and bass Samuel Ramey.
Mahler's largest symphony poses tremedous challenges to the conductor. The huge forces must be marshaled under strict discipline if the music is to emerge with every passage balanced in dynamics; there are frequent alterations in tempos, with many subtle cues to slow down or move ahead; and beyond all these, there is the essential need to let Mahler's huge vision unfold clearly so that the ecstatic invocation, "Come Creator Spirit, visit our souls, fill them with grace," can be adequately
Part Two is full of the mystical symbols of the final pages of Goethe's "Faust," with choirs of angels singing from different regions. The symphony is one of the grand conceptions of music.
It was a remarkable and exhilarating experience to hear it in the clarity of the Concert Hall, where every line could be followed and where the tremendous climaxes could be adequately realized. To a Leinsdorf there are no technical problems to be solved. Everything was laid out impeccably for each component: the orchestra, constantly checked or urged on; the various choruses in their shifting moods; and the soloists, both vocal and orchestral.
With an incisive beat as steady as the hand of a master surgeon, Leinsdorf made absolutely clear his realization of the score and his intentions on the path to achieving it. There were glories in the loudest and the softest moments, splendors in sound from the orchestra, which was in top form, and from the great choruses gathered on the special risers made especially for the occasion.
So much was present for the audience to approve in mounting shouts that there is little more for tonight's audience to hope for, except perhaps that Leinsdorf will broaden a touch more the moments that call for a "holding back"; that the outburst at "Acdende!" will be the shout that is marked in the score; that the first movement will not go quite so fast. Give Mahler a touch more expansiveness and the result will be truly extraordinary.