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Mahler : Symphony No 8 : Soloists, Massed Choirs and Orchestras, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor) Palais Omnisports de Paris, Bercy, France, 6.3.2008 (AO)

List of Participants: 

Twyla Robinson, Erin Wall, Marisol Montsalvo (sopranos), Nora Gubisch, Annette Jahns (altos), Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), Franco Pomponi (baritone), Denis Sedov (bass), Orchestre de Paris, Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Singverein, London Symphony Chorus, Maîtrise de Radio France, Chœurs d’enfants assembled by ARIAM Ile-de-France, Chœur des enfants Nadia Boulanger,  Chœur d’enfants l’Inchœurigible, Chœur des Polysons, Chœur d’enfants de Levallois-Perret, Maîtrise des petits chanteurs de St.-Christophe de Javel, Ange Leccia (scenic creator), Stéphane Fiévret (artistic co-ordinator).

Marisol Montsalvo - Picture © Guy Barzilay Artists M

It’s not every day that you arrive for a concert to find people selling –and eating -  popcorn in the amphitheatre.  This performance was unique. For a start, it took place in the Palais Omnisports de Paris, which usually hosts rock concerts and sports events. The building itself is impressive. It’s shaped like a ziggurat with steep sides covered in beautifully clipped grass. How do they mow at 30 degree angles ? But more pertinently, I wondered why Mahler?  It certainly was a treat to see a capacity audience for classical music in an arena much larger than London's Royal Albert Hall, but how would a symphony work in such surroundings ? This was no ordinary concert. It was being filmed for broadcast by France 2, Mezzo, Arte and France Musique. It was a performance within a film, where the space itself, and the huge audience were part of a wider experience.

Without having seen the film, obviously  I don’t know what the end result will be, but it might very well be an ambitious and imaginative undertaking, in the right circumstances. If the film is good enough, it might just bring new audiences to classical music. And why not? We’ve become so used to classical music in formal, restrictive settings that the music itself has acquired a negative image.  Currently there’s a debate in the UK blaming classical music for not addressing cultural diversity. But music “is” music, regardless of any audience. Indeed, some of the “typical” white, middle class audience probably don’t care about music at all, but come for the social cachet. Fundamentally, I believe that anyone, whatever their social status, can respond to good music. Class has nothing to do with taste and sensitivity.  So it’s good that the Orchestre de Paris, is prepared to take a gamble for their 40th anniversary, and perform “the Everest of Symphonies” in such unconventional circumstances.

The tension built up slowly. First, the arena was shrouded in darkness, small lights flickering over the orchestral desks. Then, quietly, in walked the orchestra, in procession. Then, when all 800 or so performers stood in place, Eschenbach walked in alone.  This was no gimmick, but inspired by the first movement of the symphony itself, based on ancient liturgy. “Veni, creator spiritus”. At once the procession reflects the beginning of a traditional Mass, and also honours the musicians about to create this sublime music.

Much of the reverential effect  though, was dissipated by the organ, which remained invisible behind the three great screens positioned behind the massed choirs. The sound was painfully distorted by amplification and the bass turned into a mechanical drone. Each organ has an individual sound, but this one didn’t sound like anything normal. Apparently, there had been three rehearsals but something went awry in performance. By the second movement, the problem was solved, and the organ regained its natural voice.

In any venue, acoustics will be different wherever you sit and whatever music is being played.  For Mahler’s 8th, it’s usually a good idea to choose a seat far back, so the orchestra isn’t overwhelmed by the choirs, which can be a problem in churches where the venues mean sitting too close to the organ.  At Bercy though, the problem is the sheer size of the auditorium. Furthermore, it’s actually quite tricky in gargantuan pieces like this where the sheer volume of sound within the choirs makes it difficult to follow the orchestra. Apparently, there were many small microphones placed strategically to pick up sound that might otherwise be lost. But no-one goes to concerts, I hope, to listen to sound engineering. 

Musically, this was a good performance. There is a temptation, with this symphony, to play up its gargantuan characteristics at the expense of its subtler complexities. Eschenbach eschewed the popular “boombox Mahler” approach, wisely, I think, because the music itself is so inherently dramatic, and there’s no need to ram this home too much.  It doesn’t exist for its own sake, but to underline the power of the symphony’s most powerful message : its spirituality. The disparity between the two parts of the symphony can be confusing, so the interpretation is a measure of a conductor’s ability. This isn’t an opera, it doesn’t tell a story and the soloists don’t sing “roles”. It’s altogether a more unique as it’s a song symphony where voice is but a part of the composer’s palette of sound. For all its monumental proportions, this symphony benefits from refined detail in performance. Thus, the solo violin was given prominence, for it symbolises the individual amidst the tumult : that's a very Mahlerian touch, not often made with such clarity. Similarly, Eschenbach got the fundamental balance between reverence and energy in the first movement. It welcomes the spirit of creativity, but it’s no mad romp, it comes from the divine, in the widest sense of the word.

A real masterstroke was the way the voice of Marisol Montalvo integrated into the symphony.  Suddenly, her voice rang out, disembodied, floating gloriously above the 700 other singers and the orchestras.  “Komm ! hebe dich zu höhern Sphären” . Truly this captured the idea of being uplifted, to the highest spheres, to the highest plane of existence beyond earthly turmoil. Yet the “Komm !” also reflects Veni, creator spritus, and the sense of purposeful development. As Stéphane Fiévret, the artistic co-ordinator  said, it involves “correspondances” in the French sense of the word, where music, poetry and visuals each reinforce the impact of the others. A close up of Montalvo’s face was projected onto one of the screens above the stage. She’s glowing with ecstatic happiness. This too expands the imagery, and is a detail we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Technology has its uses. 

The quality of the orchestral playing was matched by the excellent singers. Particularly impressive was the tenor, Nikolai Schukoff. He’s still young and relatively unknown, but he’s very good indeed. His range is extensive, but more importantly, he has an intelligent way with words and nuance.  I’d heard good things about him and was delighted that they were true.  Definitely a singer to watch out for.

At the symphony’s première in 1910, Mahler had 500 singers brought in at great expense from choirs in Vienna and Liepzig, because he wanted more polish and sophistication than was available then in Munich.  This performance brought in the formidable Wiener Singverein and the London Symphony Chorus, supplementing two well-known French choirs.  This time the reasons may have been “spiritual” as well as artistic, for the international element again expands the sense that this symphony is universal and all-inclusive.  The entries were crisp and precise, beautifully timed, though the actual diction not specially clear.  Still, it was sufficient, because the impact lies in the total combination of words and music.  Word painting doesn’t matter quite so much as emotional energy and commitment.  The children’s choirs were a delight. One benefit of using this huge venue was that for a change, the parents, grandparents and friends of the children could be accommodated.  Of course they come to share their offsprings' moment of glory, but it brings them further into the experience of listening.  There’s nothing quite like experiencing music on this scale and it was certainly interesting to hear this symphony augmented in a subtle, unobtrusive but musically valid way.

Anne Ozorio

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