A symphony on steroids. That’s how some would describe Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). The Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus opened its 2012-13 season with Mahler’s mighty work on Friday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. To say that the performance was highly anticipated would be a gross understatement. It’s not every day that we get to hear 400 musicians and choristers perform some of the greatest music ever written. As music director Giancarlo Guerrero likes to say, a performance of the Mahler Eighth is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Friday’s concert was made all the more unforgettable because of the ensemble’s intensely lyrical approach to the music.
The most unique aspect of the NSO’s performance was the sense of balance and restraint it brought to the piece. With such a large and intense work, the temptation to perform the whole piece with aggression and brutal force is undoubtedly high. But Guerrero took great care to ensure a sound that would not overtake the audience. Even the opening chords, which are meant to be sung and played loudly, were held back to a degree. This made the truly important moments of the piece – the conclusion of the first movement and the slow, haunting melodies in the second – that much more interesting. It furthermore granted the orchestra and chorus increased flexibility, allowing them to be more open and intimate than in a more straightforwardly bombastic reading.
The chorus was the highlight of the symphony. It was clear that Guerrero approached the symphony as more of a vocal rather than orchestral work. The influence of legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw, one of Guerrero’s favorite interpreters, was very evident in the chorus: they had the unity of consonants, the moderated but distinctive vowels and the expanded use of vibrato and open space that were characteristic of Shaw’s chorale. They approached the music with a sense of both delicacy and importance. Their range of expression – in volume, tone and color – was well-suited to this symphony and an absolute pleasure to listen to. The Blair Children’s Chorus, under the expert leadership of Tucker Biddlecombe, played a smaller role; nevertheless, their sound was high, clear and pure and added an angelic dimension to an already luminous work.
The soloists certainly had their work cut out for them. The first part of the symphony requires a great deal of ensemble singing, which the soloists performed with grace and aplomb. Their interaction with the chorus – particularly in part one’s “Veni, creator spiritus – was thoughtful and invigorating to listen to. The two strands of vocal color were mutually beneficial, with the smaller ensemble adding a richer color to the already resonant chorus. The second part’s Faust setting employed the soloists in a more operatic fashion, with more attention being given to each individual voice. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey sang with sincerity and life; he possessed a ringing, resonant tone that maintained warmth throughout. Alto Kelly O’Connor sang with incredible power in both movements, her soaring and open voice complementing the foundation of the orchestra and chorus and helping to give the work a buoyant feeling. The other soloists – sopranos Marina Shaguch, Erin Wall and Hana Park, alto Nancy Maultsby, baritone Quinn Kelsey and bass Raymond Aceto – also gave memorable performances.
Surprisingly for a Mahler symphony, the orchestra often seemed to play a secondary role. But its unobtrusiveness only added to the appeal of the work as a whole. The NSO’s most intriguing playing occurred in the second movement, where the strings and clarinets helped bring a sense of romanticism and individualism to the piece. Combining the slow, almost dream-like lyrical melodies with the gradual crescendo of the chorus created a kind of romantic apotheosis: this was likely Mahler’s intended goal, as the entirety of the symphony is about the human experience of divine love.
The Symphony of a Thousand is a work that defies conventional description. It combines features of a classical symphony and an oratorio, but manages to avoid being shoehorned completely into either of those categories. In its performance, the NSO did a remarkable job of crafting a piece that was both incredibly visceral and incredibly vulnerable. The orchestra highlighted both the power of instruments at their loudest and the delicacy of a quiet melody. The chorus combined purity of fortitude, vulnerability with incredible intensity. In avoiding the “symphony on steroids” that Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand might have been, the NSO has created a real Symphony of a Thousand: a thousand colors, sounds, emotions and voices.
If you go
Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major. The performance is 7 p.m. Sunday Sept. 9 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $50 to $139. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.