Three years ago, when discussions about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 75th season began, David Zinman waited to see how serious the orchestra's management was about that anniversary. When he realized that management planned to celebrate it seriously indeed, he knew that there was only one work with which to finish the season.
"It had to be the Mahler Eighth -- nothing else would do because nothing else brings so many things together," the music director says about the piece he has dreamed of conducting all his professional life and with which he will conclude the BSO's 75th anniversary season on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in Meyerhoff Hall.
"The symphony must be the world, it must embrace everything," Mahler once said. But even the composer knew that he had created something extra-extraordinary in the Eighth. In the vision that inspired him to write it, Mahler imagined that "the whole universe began to vibrate and resound . . . not [just] human voices, but planets and suns revolving."
"Mahler wanted something colossal," Zinman says. "If Beethoven had set Schiller for his most ambitious symphony, then Mahler would outdo him by setting Goethe."
In the first movement of the symphony, Mahler sets the old medieval hymn, "Veni, creator spiritus"; in the second and final one, he sets the final scene of Goethe's "Faust," which is about how masculine forces are driven in search of the "eternal feminine."
"The piece is about nothing less than the creation of the universe and the sperm in search of the egg," Zinman says. "It's that ambitious -- and that simple."
How big is the Symphony No. 8? It acquired its nickname, the "Symphony of a Thousand," because when Mahler first presented it in 1910 he actually used an orchestra of 172 players and more than 850 singers.
Zinman is not doing anything on that scale (most performances use about 400) but the forces he will marshal will set a new BSO standard for bigness:
So big that the BSO has hired 35 extra musicians (to bring the orchestra to a total of 132); so big that Zinman is rehearsing six times with the orchestra (instead of the usual four); so big that before Zinman first rehearsed the piece with the orchestra he had already met 7 times with the various choruses the work requires (he is using upward of 300 singers, including boy choristers and nine imported soloists); so big that the more than 400 singers and musicians who will perform required the BSO to put some of the singers in boxes and to build a stage extension over the first two rows of audience seats so the huge orchestra can be accommodated.
And so big that one of the reasons the 90-minute work will be performed without intermission is that there aren't enough bathrooms backstage for everyone.
"At the end of the performance, it's right out the door [with the choristers]," says BSO operations manager Susan Anderson. "There's simply no room backstage."
If Zinman has been responsible for the artistic dimensions of this week's performances, it is Anderson who is responsible for its physical dimension. She began planning for the performance exactly a year ago. The least of her problems, she says, was building the stage extension.
"The biggest problem is how do you herd 500 people around?" she jokes. "Do you use a whistle, a megaphone or a bullhorn? Seriously, the only thing I can compare this to is putting on an outdoor concert -- that's because all the advantages of an indoor concert are taken away. I have had to look at the space in a new way and improvise a way to perform a piece of music that the hall was not designed for."
Because of their huge numbers, all the choristers -- the combined choruses of the BSO, the University of Maryland at College Park, Morgan State University and the boys' choirs of several local churches -- will gather first at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. Immediately before the performance, they will march to Meyerhoff in separate columns along Preston and Biddle streets and enter the hall from different sides. So many singers made it necessary for Anderson to rent bleacher stands that are 10 rows high.
"Not quite as easy as it sounds," she says. "We had to make a big deal about nice wood -- we didn't want the singers getting splinters and we didn't want the bleachers to be too dingy from the audience's point of view."
From Zinman's point of view, some of the problems of directing so huge and diverse a work were apparent last Tuesday when he assembled all the choristers for their first rehearsal together. In order to get what he wanted from the adults, the BSO's music director was able to talk about the human need for love and salvation. But with the boys, most of whom were about 10 years old, he had to use a different tack.