My Bucket List: Singing in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

Last week I checked off the biggest bullet point on my bucket list I had accounted thus far: Singing in a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”. As part of a collaboration with the Oratorio Society of New York, the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Choir, Women’s Chorus, and Symphony under the direction of Kent Tritle performed at no less than the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine – the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in the world. With 450-500 musicians total, a huge noise was made, especially with the help of Saint John’s gigantic pipe organ. The church played a role as an instrument itself, in that the reverberation of the sound produced lasted close to eight seconds. While this piece is normally performed in a concert hall with minimal reverberation, the cathedral added excitement to an already thrilling work. This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on March 2, 1916. I not only got to check this ultimate bucket list item off once, but twice- as a second performance was added only a few weeks before our scheduled single performance on February 25 by popular demand.

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*** New caption *** American Premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra Academy of Music, Philadelphia 2 March 1916

 

One might ask why singing in Mahler 8 was at the top of my bucket list. Why not sky-diving or backpacking through Europe? That question could be answered in many ways, but maybe it’s enough that I have and will continue to go backpacking long distances to see this symphony, let alone perform in it. As of today I have seen, including performances in which I have participated, approximately nine performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. That is nine more than most people on Earth will ever see or dream of seeing. How could I have seen so many performances of a work that is so rarely done? The forces are too gargantuan for it to be done regularly- even in New York. To those unfamiliar with Mahler’s Eighth, here are, roughly, the forces required: One festival-sized orchestra with multiple doublings, organ, piano, off-stage brass, eight soloists, two SATB choirs, and a children’s chorus.

My dad and I, we like to think famously, have traveled over the last eleven years to see this work done as many times as possible, specifically on the East Coast. The first time I saw it we had driven up to Tanglewood to see it with the Boston Symphony. I was only seven years old and, shaking in my seat in the Shed because of the organ, knew that I had to perform in that symphony one day. We later made multiple trips to Philadelphia, back up to Tanglewood, to the movie theater for live simulcasts, and to venues in New York.

Mahler’s symphonies also got me to enjoy symphonic repertoire and helped me along my own musical road. For a while opera was the only performing art that appealed to me; I found sitting in concert halls watching orchestras play hour-long symphonies to be torturous. That changed when I found myself enraptured for an entire hour and twenty minutes of both vocal olympics and orchestral aerobics in Mahler’s Eighth. Symphonies could have that many singers? Mahler’s Third Symphony was the first Mahler symphony I ever saw performed live, and despite its vocal presence, I give it credit, along with many works by Wagner and Strauss, for influencing me to play the French horn. I really don’t see how anyone could go see a symphony that starts with eight horns all playing forte in unison and not want to begin horn lessons immediately afterwards. Thanks to Mahler, I learned to truly appreciate live instrumental music.

From September to early February during piano/choral rehearsals for our Mahler 8, I found that I was the only one enjoying them. Getting people to learn Mahler’s notes and intervals was like pulling teeth. After all of my own experiences I had had with my dad, it made me sad to see everyone around me view Mahler in a distasteful light, or toss him away as a ridiculous composer. Many complained about the difficult vocal lines, some even claimed that we college students shouldn’t be touching Mahler- even the choral parts. Once we got into the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine a couple of weeks ago, however, people realized how big of a deal his symphony actually is. Everything came together, and everyone began to have a good time. Chorus met orchestra, both met soloists, and a chemistry between the three lit up the entire cathedral. In only a week, most people in my choir learned to love and appreciate Mahler, which, on my part, was a really heartening and reassuring thing to see. We also introduced a whole lot of people to Mahler’s Eighth who had never experienced it before: The audience and us.

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Kent Tritle leading the MSM Symphony, MSM Symphonic Choir and Women’s Chorus, and the Oratorio Society of New York in Mahler 8 at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. © Sally Benner 2016

Mahler said writing his Eighth Symphony was the grandest thing he had ever done. To describe it, he said “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” I am not one for having “out-of-body” experiences, but being in the middle of Mahler’s description motivated me to become one who does. I felt as if my soul had floated up to the Heavens he had opened and that my voice had become part of the “planets and suns revolving.” Having my dad there to witness my singing in both performances made it extra special. That is why singing in Mahler 8 was at the top of my bucket list.

A Review of Mahler 8 at the Shed

On Saturday night the Tanglewood Koussevitsky Music Shed erupted with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Stepping up to the plate for this colossal work was the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and alumni under the baton of Andris Nelsons. The massive double chorus included the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, The Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) Chorus, and the American Boychoir. The soloists were sopranos Erin Wall, Christine Goerke, and Erin Morley as the Mater Gloriosa; Mihoko Fujimura and Jane Henshel as first and second altos, respectively; Klaus Florian Vogt, Matthias Goerne and Ain Anger.

Mahler Symphony No. 8 at the Tanglewood Koussevitsky Music Shed. © Hilary Scott 2015

Mahler Symphony No. 8 at the Tanglewood Koussevitsky Music Shed. © Hilary Scott 2015

Erin Wall was a powerful presence as the first soprano, nailing every one of her many high ‘C’s. It was fascinating watching her at the end of the first movement bend backwards, grab her music stand as if she was driving an 18-wheeler semi-trailer truck, and open her mouth like a lion to finish off on her C and proceeding B flat. Christine Goerke incorporated her dynamic vibrato to reach the top of her register and to achieve proper head resonance. Erin Morely was a beautiful Mater Gloriosa, floating on top of her line as she stood far above the stage in a nook near the ceiling of the stage right side. Mihoko Fujimura and Jane Henschel were fine Mulier Samaritanas and Maria Aegyptiacas, respectively. Klaus Florian Vogt sang the outrageous part of Doctor Marianus (Mahler hated tenors about as much as Strauss did), as if he was singing a Bach cantata. It was very delicate, light, and legato, unlike how many other heldentenors have sung it in the past. Matthias Goerne sang gorgeously, exhibiting his dark and rich tone for which he was praised in his Winterreise last season at Alice Tully Hall. Finally, Ain Anger sang the role of Pater Profondus with volume and intensity.

The chorus, unfortunately, did not sound as immense as I would have hoped. In this case that could have been at the hands of acoustics, however, there were several problems with blending throughout the night and several voices stuck out. There were also times when the chorus began separating from the orchestra and luckily found its way back. I also wish there could have been more intensity present in the second part, as the closing scene from Goethe’s Faust starts from nothing and grows throughout the duration of the movement. For an orchestra largely made up of students, I thought their playing was top notch. Their playing was hesitant at the beginning, but grew to be more comfortable by the end. The brass played out with confidence, with the exception of the trombones of which I would have loved to have heard more. The wind section did a terrific job taking on the terrifying beginning of the second part, playing in fifths and making entrances out of nowhere. They managed to balance very well with each other. The strings, like the chorus, had trouble blending, and the solos for the concertmaster could have had more emotion and warmth. I also missed the sensation of the hair on the back of my neck standing up when that first E flat chord comes crashing down on the keys of the organ.

Andris Nelsons conducted with such fluidity and agility. He brought out a lot of dynamic contrast and color as he flitted and floated on the podium.

Overall, a marvelous performance was given by all. Mahler 8 is a gargantuan work that takes quite a toll and effort from everyone involved. I missed the sensation of a shaking, crumbling concert hall as the piece came to a close, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.