John DeMain and the MSO called on three choruses for this weekend’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, amassing roughly 500 performers for its spectacular season-ending concert.
Coming off a run of "Rusalka" with the Madison Opera, DeMain showed no fatigue through to the end of Friday night’s performance, ringing in the grandiose closing of Mahler’s massive 80-minute symphonic work with enthusiasm — a resounding end to DeMain’s 25th season with the orchestra.
Mahler’s most ambitious work — his 8th symphony — was coined the “Symphony of a Thousand” to publicize its 1910 premiere, a title the composer thought made light of a work he had called “surely my greatest accomplishment.” While it only had half the advertised number, the MSO and company’s sheer sonic power could have fooled me.
Accompanying the MSO were the Madison Symphony Chorus, the University of Wisconsin Choral Union, and members of the Madison Youth Choir along with eight vocal soloists. It was exciting to walk into the hall to find the stage filled with so many musicians — DeMain had to watch his step as he made his way to the podium. The children’s choir, abounding with enthusiasm and smiles, was especially delightful to watch — and they were quite good, too.
The work is in two large parts. For part 1, Mahler chose as a subject “Veni creator spiritus” (“Come creator spirit”), a 9th century Latin Pentecostal hymn that so inspired the composer that he finished the score in less than two months. It begins with a bang, the full sound of Overture Hall’s extraordinary pipe organ accompanied by the chorus. Throughout part 1, the chorus calls for love and redemption: “Inflame our senses with light; pour love into our hearts,” they exclaim, and the orchestra answers their call.
For part 2, Mahler chose to set the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, the famous story of the man who made a deal with the devil. Part 2 is unique in form: somewhere between an oratorio, a symphonic movement, and a collection of episodes. The eight soloists and the chorus take the roles of characters and tell the story of Faust’s ascension to heaven, redeemed from his earthly deeds by the power of love. Featuring a vocal trio, arias, and interesting orchestral blends, the more programmatic part 2 is more gripping than part 1, though they balance nicely.
While the themes of love and redemption tie the symphony’s two parts together, a few musical features make the connection stronger. Most notably, a small rhythmic gesture — a long-short-long pattern introduced at the start of the piece as the chorus sings “spiritus” — weaves through the entire symphony. It most notably returns toward the end of part 2 when the character Dr. Marianus sings “blicken auf” (“look up”), gesturing to the Virgin Mary. While one also notices a solo violin melody and brass interlude from part 1 return in part 2, this small long-short-long rhythmic fragment creates a sense of musical coherence across the piece.
With so many forces on stage for this work, it can be difficult to strike a sonic balance. At times during the performance, the orchestra drowned out the vocal soloists, but tenor Clay Hilley, bass Morris Robinson, and soprano Emily Birsan shined through. Notably, Clay Hilley had a fantastic moment in part two during Doctor Marianus’ aria, blending well with the orchestra and delivering a strong and impassioned melody.
Coordinating 500 performers is quite a feat. While for the most part the MSO worked well with the choruses, they had difficulty making coordinated shifts in tempo, the singers sometimes falling behind or rushing ahead of the orchestra. Still, it was impressive how well the chorus and orchestra filled Overture Hall with a great variety of timbres and colors, utilizing every member of the ensemble on stage to the fullest.
(Spoiler alert) Instead of simply positioning performers off stage as Mahler’s score calls for, DeMain chose to place the seven-piece brass ensemble and solo singer in the highest box seats of Overture Hall. At the end of part 1, trumpets and trombones chimed down from the rafters as if sounding from the cosmos. In part 2, the solo soprano, Emily Pogorelc, represented the Virgin Mary receiving Faust into heaven, delivering an angelic performance — pleasant surprises with great performative impact.
Because Mahler’s 8th requires so many musicians, it is rarely performed, so take advantage of this opportunity to see this work in person. A recording does not do it justice.