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Mahler: Symphony No. 8, "Symphony of a Thousand", Soloists, Choirs, Minnesota Orchestra, James Conlon, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, 7th May 2003 (BH)

Bridgett Hooks, soprano
Emily Magee, soprano
Youngok Shin, soprano
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo
Jill Grove, mezzo
Gary Lakes, tenor
Donnie Ray Albert, baritone
John Cheek, bass-baritone
Minnesota Chorale, Kathy Saltzman Romey, artistic director
Kantorel, Axel Theimer, artistic director
Magnum Chorum, David Dickau, music director
Metropolitan Boys Choir, Bea Hasselmann, music director
Minnesota Orchestra
James Conlon, conductor
Orchestra Hall
Minneapolis, Minnesota


In a fiery -- and risky -- debut with the Minnesota Orchestra celebrating its 100th Anniversary season, James Conlon proved himself in complete command of the Eighth, this most extravagant of Mahlerís output. From the opening "Veni, creator spiritus," taken at a pulse-quickening pace, to the stirring, shattering final pages, Conlon launched into this vast piece with an almost animal ferocity. And for most of the workís breathless ninety minutes, he seemed to be oblivious to the printed score in front of him, as only the most confident conductors can manage. I have been lucky to hear this piece live several times, and it is a pleasure to report that this performance will likely resonate in my memory for a very long time.

Conlon was fortunate to have a committed (but not always accurate) group of soloists, and an impressive, beautifully synchronized choir of 250, with excellent diction especially at lower volume levels. Equally important, the Minnesota Orchestra gave its all in the pleasantly bright acoustic of the Minnesota hall, in which the vibrations could occasionally be felt coming through the floor.

Choosing tempi generally on the faster side, Conlon nevertheless elicited much of the ebb and flow that have made his Zemlinsky interpretations so successful -- and that are essential for the Mahler to be effective. If Riccardo Chaillyís (somewhat controversial) slower tempi pay off in greater weight, and Soltiís classic version rushes headlong (over a cliff, in this writerís view), Conlon was somewhere in between, finding considerable sweep in the faster sections, yet pulling back to allow the many lyrical moments some breathing room. The first section rocketed to a mighty conclusion that was followed by almost complete silence, tinged with the electricity of a few hushed gasps here and there in the audience.

After a well-judged pause, the orchestra tiptoed into the quiet opening of Part II with an eerie, precise palette of colors, and their desolate sound made a fine context for the later rapturous moments. Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis seemed to relish her tender, intimate solos, and the strong brass section delivered all that Mahler requires, both without glare and without the slightest hesitation. Equally memorable were the percussion effects, with tympani placed on both sides of the stage.

Special mention must go to mezzo Stephanie Blythe, whose decisive clarion easily soared over the densest textures all night, as well as soprano Bridgett Hooks, who after a slightly shaky opening, then settled in and negotiated the difficult tessitura of the Magna Peccatrix. From high in the back of the third tier (it appeared), Youngok Shin made an ethereal Mater Gloriosa.

By the time the combined choruses reached the final, whisper-soft "Alles Vergangliche ist nur ein Gleichnis" ("Everything transitory is merely an image."), Conlon must have sensed that he was in the home stretch of a hauntingly emotional performance. He seemed to draw even more energy as the evening drew to a close, with stunning power for "Zieht uns hinan" ("...leads us aloft."), followed by mighty, granitic brass in the closing bars, punctuated by spine-tingling tam-tam crashes that brought the piece to its ecstatic conclusion. More than a few listeners remained in the hall until the performers had left the stage, as if trying to hold off returning to the outside world as long as possible. Thatís what happens when you taste a bit of paradise.

Bruce Hodges
© 2003



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