BSO meets the challenge of Mahler's huge Eighth

June 14, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

THE BALTIMORE Symphony Orchestra didn't so much present Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat Major last night as engage it on the field of battle. It won and so did Mahler and the full house of 2,400 ecstatic listeners giving a six-minute standing ovation at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

So complex was the music, the BSO was more like the Baltimore All-Music Orchestra and Chorus of 450 in its first performance of the epic, ending the symphony's 75th birthday year. It was one of the most memorable evenings at the nine-year-old hall and probably a high point in the BSO's entire up-and-down history.

Mahler's Eighth had almost everything. For those who liked symphonies, choral singing, solo violins or organs or flutes, brassy brass, vocal solos of distinction, oratorios, cantatas, operas, chamber music, boys' voices, Latin or German texts, neo-classic or late Romantic strains, music triumphant or moody, gargantuan or soft, fast or slow, rapid changes in mood and a conductor's arms extending from his heart, the BSO gave Mahler his due.

From his three-foot-high perch, conductor David Zinman led his legions of musicians in a fast-moving 82-minute pace that underscored several simple points despite the complexities of the score.

* Music is seen as well as heard. Masses of the 310 choristers rose and sat down answering or singing in unison, the minute bowings of violinists played near the fingers of harpists Eileen Mason and Alyce Rideout, Zinman glanced up at his troops on high or down below -- all movements among many enhancing enjoyment of the beautiful tones.

* Music is often most effective with contrasts. After Part I ended in a crashing, booming climax of all 450 musicians in Mahlerian monumentalism, the scene changed quickly to the gossamer-quiet violins, basses and woodwinds creating the eerie mood of Mahler's mountain spirits.

* Music needs sharp tonal focus, no matter the score's richness. Mahler's soaring ideas were brought into relief by Jon Frederic West's penetrating tenor or soprano Andrea Gruber and other soloists in elegant alliance or alone. Or by quick gripping solos by organist Clinton Adams, percussionist Christopher Williams, flutist Emily Controulis, violist Richard Field or violinist Herbert Greenberg.

All eight vocal soloists, singing with vigor as well as fine phrasing, lent special moments to the two-part piece praising creativity and love, based on a ninth century hymn by Hrabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz, and the German poet Goethe's "Faust Part II." The other singers were sopranos Alison Hargan and Dawn Kotoski, altos Jard van Nes and Christine Cairns, baritone David Arnold and bass Kenneth Cox.

But it was the three choirs, formed from the BSO, Morgan State University, the University of Maryland and boys choirs of three local churches that most generously shaped the overall experience of the evening. The adults sang from rear bleachers, the boys from elevated boxes. The sounds could be stunning.

The choristers prospered as much -- sometimes more -- with the Austrian Mahler's soft silk-like textures as with his overpowering renditions of "Veni, Creator Spiritus" (Come, Creative Spirit) at the ends of Part I and Part II, forceful though these were.

Extremely touching was the mountaintop chorus "Woodland wavers into view" at the opening of Part II, coming directly after the evening's most effective moment, also gentle, for the expanded orchestra. Similarly near the end, the Chorus Mysticus evokes the eternal feminine in a masterful operatic gesture resembling a quiet Verdi monastery scene.

Mahler filled his "greatest work" with so many gems, some musicians needed patience as much as good tone. Mandolin player Michael Decker sat for an hour directly in front of Zinman before his short turn came. The same wait confronted soprano Kotoski, finally singing from her heavenly left side box.

Performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 at 8:15 tonight and tomorrow are sold out, but the Saturday concert will be broadcast live on WJHU FM (88.1).

The BSO now takes a break, returns to Oregon Ridge June 23 and begins its Summerfest series at the Meyerhoff July 11 with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

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