Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons has experienced two “firsts” in the past few days: his debut conducting the Boston Pops at the Tanglewood on Parade concert on Aug. 4; and Aug. 8, his first time leading the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra – and hundreds of other performers – in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.
This performance of Mahler’s Eighth was subtitled “The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert” in homage to Bernstein, who conducted the final concert of his lifetime 25 years ago on Aug. 19, 1990, in the Koussevitzky Shed. Not only was Bernstein among the young musicians who participated in the inaugural season of the Tanglewood Music Center in 1940, but also he was a major guiding force at Tanglewood over the decades since its inception, and was the first person to significantly champion Mahler’s music in this country.
Despite its massive Orchestra, Boy Choir, Opera Chorus, four sopranos, two mezzos, tenor, baritone and bass, Mahler did not endorse the name “Symphony of a Thousand” for his eighth symphony. The last of his works to be premiered in his lifetime, the composer conducted its premiere in Munich in the autumn of 1910, just months before his death the following year. Assisting him in that effort were the two immensely gifted young conductors Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, who went on to make their own impact on the 20th century musical world. In that audience was the conductor who was to premiere the work in the US six years later, Leopold Stokowski. Bernstein first emerged as a major musical force after replacing Walter in a concert with the New York Philharmonic. The circle of musical life continues.
With its two-part structure, Mahler’s monumental work mirrors the nearly double-sized orchestral forces, augmented especially in the woodwinds and brass. The unifying concept of the piece is that of the power of love to redeem human weaknesses and inadequacies. As Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony expressed these capabilities in a 19th century context, so does Mahler’s Eighth Symphony define that potential for the 20th century.
Part 1, Veni, Creator Spiritus, is based on the Latin text of a medieval Pentecostal hymn. Here Mahler conjures Wagner: the atmosphere and character of the Meistersinger Prelude, but with two choruses and solo singers, and sustaining the Das Rheingold E-flat major chord opening as a bonus. Part 2, which begins in E-flat minor, bridges the ten-century gap between the above hymn and the 19th century by recreating the final scene of Goethe’s Faust. Here Mahler delegates each singer to represent a dramatic role from the text. With highly challenging arias and harmonic similarities to Parsifal, Mahler again tips his hat to Wagner in this section, returning to noble E-flat major as the soul of Faust ascends into heaven.
The immensity of this work will test the mettle of any conductor courageous enough to hold such an immense group, not to mention an audience, in thrall. The piece is also a strenuous effort for the orchestra. The gifted young TMC musicians were up to, and surpassed, the challenge; perhaps not numbering a full thousand, but in the case of this impressively accomplished orchestral ensemble, I doubt anyone was counting. Not every maestro gets the opportunity to command such numerous musical troops; Nelsons demonstrated that he is more than worthy of such a task.
In the ebullient opening, the maestro showed unabashed joy, reflecting both Mahler’s wish to present the work as a “gift to the nation” of Austria, and the composer’s own newfound optimism at that time of his life in the limitless spiritual potential of humankind. Nelsons deftly switched to lyricism as the handpicked soloists (a dream cast, each and every one a major talent) chimed in. Throughout the evening he knitted together the complexities of the score into a nuanced, coherent whole with unflagging intensity and a clarity that was nothing short of miraculous.
The singers’ roles are equally demanding; especially for the sopranos, who remain in the high tessitura much of the time; the tenor, who is required to cut through the colossal orchestral and choral forces; and the bass, whose extreme vocal leaps require both agility and power.
The soloists dominate in Part 2, where each adopts a character name from the Goethe text. After setting the atmosphere with ethereal tremolo in the violins and mysterious pizzicato in the lower strings, Mahler recreates the melodic imitation of a medieval church motet with the woodwinds. As if out of nowhere the forces of nature explode with the full orchestra shouting out in despair with dissonant Wagnerian thunder, like a sudden Berkshire Mountain storm. Then the quicker movement begins, and with Das Lied von der Erde passion, leads up to the hushed chorus entrance.
The soloists established their vocal supremacy as of their first entrances in Part 1, but Part 2 gave them extended opportunities to shine. A strong axis of sopranos included Erin Wall, who sang with a glorious combination of sweetness and strength and whose high notes rang out over the immense orchestral and choral forces. Her full, dramatic, well-placed, technically proficient voice was a pleasure to hear. Well versed in Strauss and Wagner, Christine Goerke provided tremendous power coupled with subtle lyricism and showed her operatic roots to advantage in her joyful, transported facial expressions. When these two voices rang out in unison high C’s, the rafters seemed ready to take flight.
Similarly compelling were Mihoko Fujimura’s rich mezzo, and the floating quality of Jane Henschel’s sonorous mezzo. Both of their performances were touchingly emotional. Erin Morley’s bell-like, heavenly soprano heard from afar beautifully set up the edifying ending reminiscent of Strauss’s Frau Ohne Schatten.
The male soloists provided a perfect balance. Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt fulfilled his difficult role of capturing notes that were not only high but also sustained, and managed to float them over the orchestra and chorus. Matthias Goerne’s opulent baritone was so lush as to elicit goose bumps. Despite subito-piano leaps and difficult-to-find pitches, his voice was able to cut through heavy strings and brass in the high range. Ain Anger’s lustrous bass was full but not heavy, and displayed both agility and warmth.
The TMC Orchestra showed impressive maturity and capability in rendering Mahler’s fiendishly difficult orchestration. The youthful concertmaster’s violin solos were technically proficient, and played with great sensitivity, as were those of the principal cellist. The spectacular horn playing would have knocked Mahler’s socks off.
The chorus, alternately magical, youthful, angelic and powerful, demonstrated their full potential and gave their longtime leader, the retiring John Oliver, much to be proud of. With their immense, gorgeous sound, and their remarkable ability to sustain the difficult high notes at the end, they sounded like a Chorus of a Million.
Mahler did not hesitate to proclaim his Symphony No. 8 the pinnacle and most imposing of his symphonic works, as demonstrated by an ending where the voices become celestial and the planets and stars spin around them in a universal call to joy: an ecstatic reminder of redemption ending with mystical chorus and heavenly orchestra cycling back to an eternal, life affirming E-flat major.
This glorious performance by Nelsons and the magnificent ensembles at his command also inspired great joy for an audience lucky enough to witness this extraordinary event. Of course they went wild. What audience would not? The Koussevitzky Shed resounded with the spirit of the last seven decades, as it will, hopefully, for the next seven decades and more. Bernstein would have been proud.
Photos used by permission of Hilary Scott
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