Once in a century

The Philadel­phia Orches­tra per­forms Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

5 minute read

A hundred years ago this month, the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the American première of Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the last of his symphonies to be premiered with the composer himself conducting. Among those in attendance at that 1910 performance in Munich, eight months before Mahler’s death, was Leopold Stokowski, who would become the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912.

The Eighth had been a sensation in Europe, and Stokowski thought it would put his new orchestra and himself on the map. It was also a monster, with a huge orchestra including a couple of dozen brass players, a huge mixed chorus, and a slew of soloists. It took Stokowski both time and charm to persuade the orchestra’s board to underwrite the performance.

He wasn’t going to scale it down, either; rather, he actually scaled it up. A Viennese impresario, Emil Gutmann, had dubbed the Eighth “The Symphony of a Thousand,” although there was nothing near such a requirement in the score. But Stokowski, no mean showman himself, actually put some 1,050 musicians onstage at the Academy of Music. It was a sensation, with nine sold-out performances in Philadelphia and a tenth in New York.

The Mahler Eighth did for Stokowski what Citizen Kane did for Orson Welles, and it did the same for the orchestra too, which came to be seen not as a regional but a national orchestra, and in short order an international one. It has been the city’s iconic cultural institution ever since.

One might imagine that the orchestra would have made the Eighth a signature piece. Not exactly. The present performances of it are only the second at a subscription concert since the original Stokowski ones (Christoph Eschenbach performed it in 2008). Even Stokowski, who continued to conduct the orchestra for nearly a quarter of a century, never brought it back. Maybe he thought he’d made his point, or maybe he guessed he’d never repeat his first success with it.

An orchestral loss leader

The Eighth, if not an orphan, has been certainly the least performed of Mahler’s symphonies in the United States. The huge forces involved make it no less a loss leader than it was a century ago. But it is also a problematic work musically. Of course, it has Mahler’s genius, which means in this case not only magnificent orchestral but choral writing. One can burrow into the score’s details with great pleasure, but as a whole the structure is, frankly, a bit fatiguing. Mahler meant to do something in the Eighth that he never did otherwise, namely to write a piece that is celebratory from the beginning to the end. The object of the celebration is love, and very much of the spiritual and celestial kind.

The first of the score’s two parts is a reworking of a ninth-century Latin poem, Veni, Creator Spiritus. In Mahler’s hands, this spirit, a.k.a. “the Comforter,” is a divine demiurge who is described at one point as “a finger of God,” and who appears to be in charge of material creation. The second part, at twice the length of the first, is the longest symphonic movement in the repertory, and it sets verses from Goethe’s Faust. The Comforter gives way here to the more familiar duo of Father and Son, and latterly to a “goddess” of love who represents Goethe’s Eternal Feminine.

Religious anxieties

The eclectic mix of religious figuration answered to Mahler’s own anxieties as an assimilated Jew of the late Austrian empire. Like many prominent Jews of his time, he straddled his heritage uneasily; thus, the soaring principal theme of Part I, which returns to conclude the symphony 80 minutes later, is based on a Hanukkah hymn, but the score also contains an uncomfortable reference to the Pharisees. More generally, however, the parade of divine personages is, at least to present taste, pretty much a bore. You could ignore the supertitles at the performance and just attend to the sonic display, but it’s a little difficult to sit through a work of such length, for the most part continually sung, without concerning oneself with what the fuss is about.

Another problem is that you can’t simply celebrate nonstop, even in the most ingenious of guises. Mahler can do joy exceedingly well — it is a part of his immense popularity — but everywhere else in his work it is the reward of much struggle. In the Eighth, it begins with the great E-flat opening chord of Part I, and seldom gives pause. The only real relief comes in the one extended instrumental section of the work, the 166-bar prologue that begins Part II. Here, Mahler offers a sinuous theme tinged with melancholy, and lets it have its way as if to begin one of his great adagios.

A Johnny-One-Note Mahler

The spell is broken after a few minutes though, and all is praise again (with a bit of scolding for love of the more carnal kind). The critic Theodor Adorno was doubtless going too far in describing the effect as vapid, but a Johnny-One-Note Mahler, however gorgeously attired, is not putting his best foot forward. What we most prize in Mahler is his complexity, ambiguity, and rapid shifts of mood. We don’t need a 20th-century version of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass from him.

What cannot be doubted was Nézet-Séguin’s commitment to the score, the ravishing work of the orchestra, and the rich singing of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the American Boychoir, and the eight fine and robust soloists, particularly the splendid Erin Wall. They amounted, in all, to 420 performers, or 40 percent of Stokowski’s cohort. But they were plenty enough. I don’t know what Stokowski’s band sounded like, but it could hardly have been better.

Editor's note: Slight changes have been made to the fifth paragraph to reflect the fact that this was not the first performance of the Eighth in a century, as was stated in the review as originally posted. [March 21, 2016]

What, When, Where

Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Seguin with the forces of the Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, Director), the Washington Choral Society (Scott Tucker, Artistic Director), and the American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Music Director). With soloists Angela Meade (soprano), Erin Wall (soprano), Lisette Oropesa (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), Markus Werba (baritone), and John Relyea (baritone). March 10-13, 2016 at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. 215.893.1999; www.philorch.com

The March 13 performance will be simulcast on WRTI at 2pm.

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