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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

MSO Meets Mahler’s Eighth

A symphony of ambition

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Of all the great composers from the past century, Mahler cannot be accused of reticence or lack of confidence. None of his work, however, has the overreaching ambition of the choral Eighth, often inaccurately referred to as the "symphony of a thousand," a slight exaggeration of its stupefying number of participants. Comprising eight soloists, double chorus, children's chorus and an orchestra of at least 120 players, and blessed with Mahler's own reverential benediction of creating a work that reaches out to the entire universe in its quest for the redeeming, healing balm of universal love, the Eighth becomes quite a stretch.

Coming from a lesser composer, such a project would seem ludicrous, but from arguably the greatest symphonist since Beethoven (Brahms notwithstanding) and the only one who has majestically combined the angst of the 20th century with the structural lucidity of the 19th in works of searing emotional power, one wonders at the limits of audacity within genius. What was Mahler really about in writing an almost entirely vocal work in two languages, Latin and German?

Written in 1906, finally performed in 1910, lampooned as the symphony of a thousand mistakes, he curiously dedicates this most unusual work to his wife, Alma, the "eternal feminine" and embodiment of universal love as conceptualized by Goethe. One can't bypass Brahms' take on the same theme. According to MSO conductor Andreas Delfs, Brahms internalized his sufferings whereas Mahler spelled it out for us.

Immense Scope

Mahler resounds the loudest. His Eighth is a magnificent work, daunting in scope, intimidating in size but inescapably Mahler in its almost pleadingly tender appeal for universal unity and love that forgives. It consists of only two movements, the first a transcription of an untranslatable ninth-century Latin hymn and the second a setting of the last part of Goethe's Faust. If one approaches the Eighth by reading musicologists' analyses of Mahler's philosophy-"the impregnation of the entire creative process by a Spirit none could escape and with whom all can identify"-one can easily be turned off by such high-minded if well-meaning affectations.

But Mahler is an artist, not a theorist, and the work's immense scope, incorporating a double fugue resolving into an extended sonata, does not deprive us of one of his most transparent musical tapestries. The thematic material is easier to follow than the symphony's monolithic size suggests. The beauty of the score becomes most apparent in the purely orchestral passages, which highlight Mahler's vision most effectively. A recurring nine-note signature motif is strongly reminiscent of his Second, Fourth and Sixth symphonies, although Delfs feels that in terms of harmonic evolution and freedom of expression, the Eighth is more advanced than the earlier works and the human element makes it more universal than the Ninth.

Be that as it may, the magnificent introduction to the second movement reminds us of the Mahler we most admire. The soloists occasionally seem redundant, though the choruses are luminous, but the music is all of a piece, appealingly integrated and almost tuneful, suggesting the symphony might have been tantalizingly independent of the need for vocalization as Mahler originally intended.

One smiles at Mahler's whimsy in scoring four flutes, four oboes, three clarinets, four bassoons, eight trumpets, four trombones, three timpani, glockenspiel, cymbals, harps and mandolin, but he winks toward the dissonances of the future by using his own unique brand of special effects. In the last analyses his music is firmly grounded in the discipline of the 19th-century German tradition, but with Mahler's signature tendency to reach out neurotically for irresolvable affirmations by conjuring up his own brand of harmonic idiosyncrasies. The unusual sets of woodwind and percussion remind us this is a modern composition.

Unlike his other works, the sheer weight of the piece and the limitations imposed by strictly vocal writing tends to somewhat inhibit musical detail within Mahler's forte of dense structural complexity. For all that, the music truly sings. Often transcendently beautiful, the Eighth is masterfully assembled, memorable, even humble. The symphony remains a thrilling hybrid, an ode to the tentative nature of man's humanism. It beautifully concludes in a hushed, reverential tone that is truly awe-inspiring, and we are reminded once again that although our universe has changed, this great composer from a past century reaches out to our times as few others have.

The MSO performs Mahler's Eighth Symphony, June 12 and 14, at Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.