Opening an orchestra season with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 ("Symphony of a Thousand") is like starting a morning exercise routine with a 26-mile run. It's an extreme gesture. But Nashville Symphony Orchestra music director Giancarlo Guerrero says no one should be surprised that he's inaugurating his 2012-13 season this weekend with Mahler's mammoth opus.
"We're beginning our season with the 'Symphony of a Thousand' precisely because it's the biggest and most challenging piece in the orchestra repertory," says Guerrero. "The Nashville Symphony has built a reputation for playing adventurous and challenging music, so the community now expects us to open our season with music like the Mahler Eighth."
Mahler composed this massive symphony in a white heat, finishing it in less than two months during the summer of 1906. He conducted the world premiere himself on Sept. 12, 1910, in Munich. This Friday, almost exactly 102 years to the day after that initial performance, the Nashville Symphony will finally get around to playing the Mahler Eighth for the first time. Why the century-long delay?
"You have to understand that you can't perform such a large and complicated work as the Mahler Eighth just anywhere," says Guerrero. "Until we opened the Schermerhorn, there just wasn't a proper place in Nashville for us to play it."
That point was proven two years ago. Guerrero had initially intended to lead the NSO in its first performances of the "Symphony of a Thousand" during the opening of the 2010-11 season, which would have coincided with both the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth and the centennial of his death. Damage to the Schermerhorn following 2010's catastrophic flood, however, forced the NSO to switch halls. The new venue, the War Memorial Auditorium, proved to be far too small to accommodate the Eighth's huge vocal and orchestral forces.
"We're having a hard enough time dealing with the Mahler Eighth inside the Schermerhorn," says Guerrero. "The size of the chorus and orchestra, with over 400 performers, is pushing our concert hall to the limit."
Mahler composed his Eighth Symphony on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, the piece is what you might refer to as "kitchen sink music," since it's seemingly scored for everything but the proverbial appliance. The manuscript calls for a late-Romantic ensemble of Wagnerian proportions. It's basically a symphony on steroids.
Mahler augmented this huge orchestra with a supersized vocal force, consisting of two mixed choruses, a children's choir and eight solo singers. It truly takes a village (make that a mid-sized metropolis) to mount a successful Mahler "Symphony of a Thousand." Nashville vocalists appearing in this weekend's performance will include members of both the all-volunteer Nashville Symphony Chorus and the Blair Children's Chorus.
"Our kids have been doing a fabulous job preparing for these performances," says Tucker Biddlecombe, the new director of choral activities at the Blair School of Music and conductor of the Blair Children's Chorus. "In most choral symphonies, the children's chorus has maybe one short part. But in the Mahler Eighth, the children have to stay focused for an hour and a half. It's such a massive undertaking."
If the only remarkable thing about the Mahler Eighth was its size, it might be easy to dismiss it as a P.T. Barnum-like gimmick. Without question, the piece does suffer from late-Romantic pomp and excess. Still, one can't help but admire its striking originality.
Certainly, the Eighth Symphony sounds like no other work in the orchestral repertoire. Often, it doesn't even sound like a symphony at all. Mahler dispensed with the traditional four-movement symphonic layout and instead divided the work into two distinct parts. In the first section, he set to music the ancient Latin hymn "Veni, creator spiritus," a Pentecostal prayer celebrating the creative spirit. Despite its orchestral interludes, this opening section has the feel of an oratorio, not a symphony.
The second part, on the other hand, calls to mind a concert opera. Here, Mahler set to music the mystical concluding scene of Goethe's Faust, with its theme of spiritual redemption. This music is extraordinarily positive and life-affirming. It was a remarkable departure for a composer who was best known for his neurotic, sardonic, chest-beating angst.
This weekend's performance will feature a strong lineup of vocal soloists. Several of the singers — soprano Erin Wall, mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey — were originally scheduled to appear in the ill-fated 2010 Mahler Eighth. They have been re-engaged for this weekend, joined by sopranos Marina Shaguch and Hana Park, alto Nancy Maultsby, baritone Quinn Kelsey and bass Raymond Aceto.
It's worth noting that the NSO's performance of the mighty Eighth is part of an ambitious survey in Nashville of der ganze Mahler — the nine complete symphonies, the unfinished 10th, the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and all of the orchestral songs. Guerrero has already led the orchestra in the Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" and Symphony No. 4, and he will close the 2012-13 season in the spring with the Symphony No. 1.
"Nashville is going to hear everything Mahler wrote," says Guerrero, "and it's going to be an unforgettable journey."
This curmudgeon misses 328 Performance Hall everytime I see a show at The Cannery
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