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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Coming to the Milwaukee Symphony: Mahler's Eighth

Imagine the Whole Universe Bursts into Song

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June 12 and 14 Andreas Delfs will conduct the Milwaukee premiere of Mahler's 8th Symphony. Delfs has conducted all the other nine Mahler symphonies here, all more than once, some of them several times. He's wanted to do the 8th for a long time, but it's seldom performed anywhere, not for any lack of greatness but because it's is on an immense scale, even for Mahler. The cost involved in staging this phenomenal work makes it prohibitive, for it requires an expansion of the already large orchestra Mahler usually used (e.g. organ, piano, celesta and harmonium and mandolin), two adult choruses rather than the usual one, a children's choir, and eight vocal soloists: three sopranos, two altos, one tenor, one baritone and one bass.

 

2009 marks the MSO's 50th anniversary and this Mahler 8th will be Delfs' season-closing last concert of his 12-year tenure as MSO music director. No music could better celebrate the former and honor the latter. When Mahler himself conducted the 1910 premiere, the thousand members of the orchestra and choruses were joined by the audience of 3000 in a standing ovation lasting nearly 30 minutes. Enthusiastic ovations have been heard in Uihlein Hall over the MSO's history, but Mahler's 8th is bound to be the most tumultuous of all.

 

When Mahler completed his 8th, he wrote: "It is the greatest work I have yet written. Imagine the whole universe bursts into song. We no longer hear human voices, but those of planets and suns circling in their orbits."

 

The opening movement is a spectacular setting of a medieval hymn (same words but Mahler's own melodies), "Veni Creator Spiritus." Mahler was a nature mystic not into organized religion. To him, "Creator Spiritus" meant the creative spirit. After writing seven great symphonies, he felt at a loss as to what to do next. His "Veni Creator Spiritus" ("Come Creator Spirit") is not only an invocation of the creative spirit; it's an arrival of that spirit in its maximum power and glory. This is no merely pious little hymn; it's a "barbaric yawp" such as Whitman called his "Song of Myself"-"barbaric" in the best sense of the word, meaning wild rather than stodgily tame.

 

Beethoven used only four vocal soloists in his 9th, and he saved them for the choral finale. Mahler's two adult choruses plus children's chorus and vocal soloists sing, in varying combinations, from the very beginning to the very end of his 8th. Most symphonists don't pull out all the stops until their finales. Mahler pulls out all the stops at the very beginning of his opening movement and lets up only enough to provide a welcome variety of loud and soft dynamics. Mahler was one of the masters of orchestration: that is, a genius for combining the various instruments with maximum sensitivity to their timbres and special abilities. During times all the musicians and singers aren't sounding forth all at once, an ever-changing combination of fewer instruments and singers contribute to the variety without which a work like this could seem exhaustingly overblown.

 

There's a long pause after the first movement's tidal wave of sonic glory. In the remainder of his 8th, Mahler ingeniously, seamlessly joined the usual last three movements to form a single hour-long movement: an awesome setting of the closing scene of Goethe's Faust, an epic verse play that is one of the masterpieces of European literature. In the closing scene, Faust, who earlier sold his soul to the devil, is redeemed by the intercession of the woman he loved, whose death was one of the tragic results of the unwise deal he made. Her intercession is not to a male deity but to "Mater Gloriosa" ("Glorious Mother").

 

The slow movement section that begins the remainder of the symphony is a welcome contrast: in its opening pages, the orchestra plays spellbindingly quietly, singers not joining in for several minutes and then softly. In the scherzo section of the seamlessly linked finale, various choruses of angels bear Faust's soul upward, singing about the joys of the blessed.

 

The closing lines of the finale's closing section, called the "Chorus Mysticus" and rivaling the close of the choral finale of Mahler's 2nd, is: "The Indescribable, here it is done; / The Eternal Feminine leads us / Upward and on." The opening movement is in Latin; the remainder, in German. There will hopefully be supertitles: lines of text projected above the stage as those lines are being sung. Translations will also be in the program booklet; supertitles, however, are better because the audience doesn't have to keep switching its gaze from the stage to the booklet.

 

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Master Singers chorus, the Milwaukee Children's Choir, and eight vocal soloists will perform Mahler's 8th Symphony at 8 p.m. on Friday June 12, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday June 14 in Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.