Leading a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony must be as daunting as conducting an opera: So much can go wrong.
If last night's season-concluding Baltimore Symphony performance of the work was not as large as the "Symphony of a Thousand" that Mahler conducted at the work's premiere in 1910 (in which 1,030 musicians participated), there was still plenty to concern BSO music director David Zinman: musicians on stage and in boxes; soloists on stage and in a box; and choristers on stage and in boxes. It was a high-wire act in which there were more than 450 participants -- and no safety net.
All of this is to say that last night's performance (which will be repeated tonight and Saturday night in Meyerhoff Hall) was -- for understandable reasons -- a somewhat disappointing one. The Mahler Eighth is the Superbowl of symphonies, and the BSO, Baltimore's "other" major league team (this season it seems as if it's our only major league team), had the jitters as it faced its biggest challenge to date.
The opening of the work's first movement -- a setting of the medieval hymn "Veni, creator spiritus" -- was tentative rather than exuberant. The ensuing problems included trumpets that dropped notes all evening long; strings that could barely be heard in tutti passages and which, therefore, worked against the composer's polyphony; and soloists who were not uniformly strong and who were not well balanced musically (the women were warmer -- not better -- than the men). Some of the soloists were genuinely disappointing: The ecstatic baritone solo in the second movement, for example, was matter-of-fact and uninvolved.
There was, of course, plenty that was good about this Mahler Eighth. There was strong, solid singing from the adult choir -- which was made up of singers from the choruses of the BSO, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland at College Park -- and some exceptional singing from the boys. There was an extraordinary moment from a young soprano named Dawn Kotoski who sang the "Mater Gloriosa" from a perch high in the auditorium gloriously.
Best of all, there were some wonderful moments from Zinman. The opening of the second movement -- with its gray, waking light -- is a great musical test of any conductor, and Zinman made the most of it -- and of several other exposed moments in the piece. If last night's performance wasn't the Mahler Eighth one had hoped to hear, there was plenty to suggest that it might become exactly that by tonight or tomorrow.