Mahler's magnificent 8th Symphony The BSO ends its 75th season with one of music's biggest bangs

June 11, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff

THE GERMAN POET Goethe needed just Faust, Mephistopheles, Margareta and a few other people to tell of the fate of a man's soul. For the same story, the composer Mahler led 1,030 musicians in 1910 in the spectacular premiere of his Symphony No. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand").

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will split the difference this week. In a more modest version, it performs its first Mahler's Eighth with some 450 instrumentalists and singers jamming an enlarged stage and four boxes of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Thursday-Saturday. Still, it's the biggest BSO production in all its 75 years.

Music director David Zinman, referring to "Cecil B. DeMille," says the work is "something a conductor gets to do only once in his life, and I really wanted to do this." The BSO decided two years ago to make it the 75th year's jewel, and Zinman's been polishing it in 13 rehearsals (normally he has 2 or 3).

Aaron Copland, recalling Mahler wanted bigger orchestras, once wrote that Mahler was "bitterly attacked as a poseur . . . hopelessly misled in his pretensions." For his Eighth Symphony, Mahler saw a universe resounding and vibrating. Yet Copland praised his "new contrapuntal textures and new orchestral colors without which the modern symphony would be inconceivable."

John Gidwitz, BSO executive director, stresses "The Mahler Eighth is not a fringe piece; it's at the core of the repertory, a great, great masterpiece." Gidwitz was manager of the San Francisco Symphony when it opened its new Davies Symphony Hall in 1980 with the Eighth. He said Zinman will complete all 10 Mahler symphonies when the BSO does the Ninth in 1992-93.

In North America, only orchestras in Vancouver and Atlanta have done the piece in the last year. It's big but it's not "Aida"; no elephants march on the Meyerhoff stage. Yet to hold the throng and make the piece work, the stage was extended to cover orchestra Rows A and B, and 10 levels of bleacher seats were erected.

Yet although Zinman says the music includes chamber music touches, this isn't four strings sitting around making cozy sounds. The spectacle's extras cost an added $90,000.

The 132 instruments used are actually 22 more than the 110 used by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra along with 950 singers in the work's American debut in Philadelphia and New York in March and April 1916. The normal ensemble today is about 400.

Added instruments include four keyboards: celesta, piano and harmonium at the left rear and right side organ hooked up to a speaker box hanging from the ceiling over the choir. Other extras are a mandolin, second harp, 10 extra strings, three flutes, two clarinets and an oboe. Four trumpets and three 3 trombones will be in the elevated A and B boxes on the left.

Edward Polochick, director of the BSO Chorus, Nathan Carter of the Morgan State University Choir and Paul Traver of the University of Maryland rehearsed their groups separately before Zinman took over. The first joint rehearsal was a week ago. The 270 voices will sing in two separate choruses, Part I in Latin, Part II in German.

David Riley led another group, 38 boys from the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, St. David's Church and the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen -- all perched in the elevated A and B boxes on the right.

"This is a great choral piece, despite some saying it's overblown," BSO choral director Polochick said. "It's been such a glorious experience preparing it. The two choruses answer each other and also sing together. It's a very complicated score."

The soloists between Zinman and the orchestra are sopranos Alison Hargan and Andrea Gruber; altos Jard van Nes and Christine Cairns; tenor Jon Fredric West; baritone David Arnold and bass Kenneth Cox. Soprano Dawn Kotoski sings from an upper box above the elevated brass.

Mapping it all out starting a year ago were Zinman and Susan Anderson, BSO operations manager. She once put together a joint concert of the New York Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic and describes the Mahler show as "mostly fun." Faced with no Meyerhoff backstage, she's having singers come and go from the nearby Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

Zinman will direct traffic from three feet above stage, one foot higher than normal. The conductor views the Eighth as "a great fresco" in the Mahlerian scheme of symphonies asking the great questions of life and death.

"The First symphony asks the meaning of life. The Second the same, except through Resurrection you'll find an answer. The Third, love is the meaning. The Fourth is a child's view of heaven.

"When you get to the Eighth, the text of Goethe is important . . . the life struggle leading to the Eternal Feminine in the Second part of Goethe's 'Faust.' What we have done in this life is forgiven and we will return without earthly burden.

"I believe Mahler saw himself as a Faustian character who sold his soul, married a younger woman, changed his religion to become director of the Vienna Opera, had Faust-like ambitions."

"Mahler was obsessed with dying and leaving. His music concerned the meaning of life, calling upon God to make mankind creative in spite of infirmities and the weakness of the flesh. It's the creative ecstasy of life."

It has been years since Zinman heard the piece. "The first time was Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw [Orchestra] in Amsterdam. Recordings can't capture this experience. There is just the sheer mass of the piece. The voices are shown in the most spectacular fashion. Yet, a lot of it is like chamber music."

Reactions often match the sounds. At the 1910 opening, the applause by 3,000 went on for 30 minutes. There are few pieces like it. Arnold Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" is another.

The BSO will lead off its Summerfest series at the Meyerhoff July 11 with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "It's the seed of the Mahler Eighth and all the great symphony-choral works," Zinman said. "Beethoven's Ninth is the blazing light of the romance . . . words taking over where music can't."

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