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MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, Soloists & Choruses, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, October 25th 2004 (BH)



Jane Eaglen, Soprano
Hei-Kyung Hong, Soprano
Heidi Grant Murphy, Soprano
Stephanie Blythe, Mezzo-Soprano
Yvonne Naef, Mezzo-Soprano
Vinson Cole, Tenor
Eike Wilm Schulte, Baritone
John Relyea, Bass-Baritone

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, Conductor
American Boychoir
Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, Music Director

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, Music Director and Conductor

For us thrill-seekers, there is nothing like walking into a packed Carnegie Hall at a quarter to eight, shortly before a blockbuster event begins, the creamy walls teeming with music lovers who know they are in for a treat, and this event had as much electricity in the air as I’ve felt since one of James Levine’s previous outings, the Verdi Requiem in 2001, with its starry cast of soloists. Gazing down at the stage, extended a good twelve feet out into the hall and crowded with musicians, I basked in the audience buzz, and overheard snips of conversation speculating on Levine, opinions about the Eighth, and comments from people who were clearly fans of the venerable chorus, or opera lovers who occasionally drift south for concerts. I marveled at the many foreign languages wafting through the air, a reminder that this is the kind of concert that attracts people from all over the world. All of this combined in delirious anticipation, waiting for the beginning of the most monumental totems of late-Romantic repertoire.

Few works in classical music are as over-the-top in scope. With a huge surging hymn as its opening, the Eighth gradually wends its way through a series of dramatic scenes, each more intense than the next, to its luminous conclusion with its other dimension of light, peace and hope. In the right hands, the piece grips the heart with its sheer bravado and some of the most beautiful music ever penned, and is pretty much in a class of its own. It requires a gargantuan group of musicians, eight vocal soloists, and an assortment of choirs that have given the work its subtitle, the Symphony of a Thousand. If there weren’t quite a thousand people onstage at Carnegie Hall, the oversized ensemble, 150 or so chorus members and 35 members of the American Boychoir eventually proved that you don’t have to have truckloads of people onstage to produce a ton of sound.

All this said – and I apologize for the lengthy introduction, but it’s important to convey the above-average expectations here, given the world-class personnel involved – last night’s performance was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because with few exceptions, the starry line-up of vocal soloists seemed to be having a difficult night. The impression that the problems were fairly uniform across the board seems to indicate that the group was probably over-singing, trying to project above the orchestra and chorus. (My only real criticism of the musicians, generally playing with great passion all night, was that true pianissimos seemed to be in short supply.) These same forces also performed this piece twice over the weekend in Boston – perhaps they were fatigued.

With respect to the performers, I won’t hold them to their work on this particular night. Almost all of them had some – repeat some – successful moments, especially Vinson Cole, substituting for an ailing Ben Heppner in the role of Dr. Marianus. Heppner, who along with Jane Eaglen is featured on Riccardo Chailly’s spectacular recording of the piece, was probably a huge draw for many, so Mr. Cole had big shoes to fill. But he did an admirable job, and his lyrical entreaties in the final half-hour were as heart-stopping as they come. At intermission, I overheard several people remarking on how well he sang on what was no doubt very short notice.

Ms. Eaglen, who sounds terrific on that Chailly recording and whose work I have greatly admired in Tristan und Isolde and elsewhere, was having the lion’s share of bad luck, with some fortissimos veering a bit off course, pitchwise. Hei-Kyung Hong sounded lovely in softer moments, or those in which she didn’t have to swim upstream against the torrents of sound. Stephanie Blythe, whom I heard in this same piece last year with the Minnesota Orchestra, continues to impress with her clarion tone – a friend who joined me last year joked at the time that he’d call her if he ever needed to hail a cab. She was one of the few in the group whose voice was able to penetrate the mix, but even she sounded pressed to the limit. John Relyea’s deep timbre was a pleasure, and quite distinctive when he could be heard in the fray. Yvonne Naef and Eike Wilm Schulte were fine, but I suspect not as memorable as they can be. I’m not sure what happened, since Levine is usually pretty scrupulous about balances, but often the soloists seemed overwhelmed.

After several colleagues predicted a “slow Levine Eighth,” the first movement actually shot off at a rousing clip, and the maestro kept up the fierce pace with very few moments of rubato or any undue emphasis at the climaxes. Recently I’ve been converted to a somewhat slower approach to this movement, but for most listeners, a faster tempo is probably what works best, and Levine exuded a confidence and strength that seemed to leave many in the audience breathless.

Mr. Levine chose to include an intermission, applause followed immediately, and without a break after Part I the cheering is held until the end. I suppose that for many, the massive first movement feels like such an earthquake that frankly it is not such a bad thing to be able to catch one’s breath, to just inhale again. But that said, there are also few sensations as thrilling as an audience rapt in complete silence, as that final gigantic chord just hangs in the air.

Near the end of the evening, Heidi Grant Murphy appeared as the Mater Gloriosa, standing on the front left of the first tier with some additional Boston brass players, and her pure, dramatic solo floated out over the audience. Perhaps because relatively few instruments accompany this role, she fared better than some of the others.

The glorious Boston Symphony Orchestra sounded terrific, especially the brass section, which seemed ready for anything Mahler’s score could throw at them. The strings drew a warm, passionate interlude at the beginning of Part II, which can sometimes seem anticlimactic after all the first movement fireworks. The venerable Tanglewood Festival Chorus also sang with tingling, pinpoint precision – and no scores – and the American Boychoir, also not using music, drew praise from every corner. Every time they entered it seemed as if sunlight were pouring through the ceiling.


But many of the more ephemeral moments were blotted out, especially those that the singers might have offered. The paradox is that much of this work really is like chamber music. Despite the enormous forces, the group is often used for transparent, ethereal effects, and this restraint is one aspect of Mahler’s genius. Yes, the final pages of both Parts I and II are filled with as much of an adrenalin rush as those of us who like that sensation could ask for, but the ninety minutes also contain passages of great delicacy. Consider the three mandolins, here placed right up in front immediately behind the podium, whose plaintive contribution in the final pages did come through with indelible poignancy.

I’ve been lucky to hear this work live a number of times: by Robert Shaw at Carnegie in the 1980s, Riccardo Chailly in Amsterdam in 2000, and just last year, a blazing evening with James Conlon making his debut in Minneapolis. While Boston’s Symphony Hall, with its beautiful acoustics and newly renovated Aeolian-Skinner organ, would have been perhaps marginally better than Carnegie for this occasion, I was very happy to be in the audience, and several friends who had never heard the piece live were also just glad for the experience. If this was not quite the ultimate divine journey that everyone might have liked, the piece maintains its own mysticism, and in a strange way, just anticipating a performance is almost a cathartic experience in its own right.

Bruce Hodges


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