I feel that I have been sent this disc by mistake. In response
to a query from one of MusicWeb International’s editors,
I remarked that I had never been able to understand or indeed
listen for more than five minutes to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony,
and would rather review something simpler for April, like Johann
Strauss waltzes, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, or the symphonies
of K.A. Hartmann. Then what should arrive in my mailbox but this?
Naxos are famous for their adventurous choices in repertoire
but this is a rather intrepid step even for them. The present
disc gives us the mighty Mahler symphony in an arrangement for
double-bass, viola, and 32 choristers. Why 32? According to the
liner-notes by producer David Hurwitz, it is because 31.6 is
the square root of a thousand.
The story behind the arrangement is bizarre, if not particularly
fascinating. Bob Barker, host of the legendary game show “The
Price Is Right,” has also been a lifelong double bass enthusiast;
he would often improvise riffs on popular tunes to entertain
audiences during the commercial breaks of his show. Barker favorites
included “Surfer Girl,” “Can’t Buy Me
Love,” and nearly the entire Joan Baez songbook. But, behind
the scenes, he nursed an enthusiasm for sterner stuff, and in
the late 1970s commissioned this arrangement of the Mahler symphony
from a good friend and fellow closeted musician, Robert J. Keeshan
- better known as Captain Kangaroo.
Keeshan, chair of the second violas for the Palm Springs Hotel
Orchestra, undertook to make the music something the friends
could play together. Ultimately, he added a choir to the mix,
simply because of the important part singing plays in this music,
although he did have the felicitous idea of translating the lyrics
to English, removing all religious references (owing to Barker’s
Wahhabism), simplifying the vocabulary, and ensuring that everything
rhymed quite nicely.
This arrangement, then, at last brings the Symphony of a Thousand
down to my level. To substitute for church bells, the violist
kicks a soprano in the shins, and at one point in Part I, beginning
in what previously was the “Accende lumen sensibus,” Keeshan
seems to have run out of ideas and has the viola and bass just
play major scales in F-sharp for seven minutes.
Meanwhile, the actual notes of the choir parts have not been
altered in any way, which is a pity not just because the syllables
are quite different but because the Warsaw Prisoners’ Choir
is comprised entirely of male bass and baritone singers, with
the exception of two sopranos who missed their flight back to
Poland (more on this later). One wonders if it would have been
too much trouble to bring in the Beach Boys to handle the women’s
The choir is terrific, though, especially in the lower registers,
and I should note that the homeless violist, found panhandling
on the street outside the studio, does a passable job sawing
away and doubling in the role of conductor. Barker handles the
bass part quite well for his age, occasional memory lapses and
whimsical insertions of popular tunes like “Oops, I Did
it Again” notwithstanding. Even at the ripe old age of
87, it is clear that Bob Barker is still quite a player.
I guess my biggest problem is with Mahler himself. This symphony
definitely could have been brought down to about ten minutes,
couldn’t it? And especially in this arrangement: the first
choral lines of Part I are “God is great, God is good,
let us thank him for our food,” and honestly, I feel that
the rest of the verses are redundant. Add a couple of church-bell
shin-kicks, maybe a Red Army-type march for the Warsaw voices,
and a cadenza for the viola, and you’ve got a five-minute
Part I. And, since Keeshan already lifted the text of “Bad
Boys” (“What you gonna do / when Satan comes for
you?”) for Part II, I see no sense in retaining any of
the original text. I do like the relentless use of the sound
of the viola to drive Faust mad. It seems appropriate.
Naxos’ packaging is fine as usual, with an excellent liner
note essay which never really attempts to justify the project
at hand. The sound quality is first-rate. There is no biographical
information for the “homeless violist,” but I suppose
I am unsurprised, given that this type of plight has befallen
many of my violist friends. I presume that he is still living
under an overpass in Los Angeles. At the very least, he can use
the booklet for food.
A friend of mine who works for Naxos-who should probably remain
anonymous, but let’s call her “Janet”-tells
me that the recording sessions for this album were quite difficult.
Apparently the Warsaw Prisoners’ Choir was only brought
in because it happened to be in town for a taping of “Oprah,” and
that all but two members of the Warsaw Women’s Penitentiary
Voices packed their bags and flew home on the night before after
numerous complaints about Barker’s backstage behavior.
Even at the ripe old age of 87, it is clear that Bob Barker is
still quite a player.
The live recording, made on the actual set of “The Price
is Right,” were constantly interrupted by rather tepid
studio audience applause, which producer Hurwitz erased afterwards.
Unfortunately, he seems also to have eliminated the entire instrumental
introduction to Part II, during which, I am told, the violist
went to Wendy’s to get everyone lunch.
Indeed, the whole live atmosphere is rather careless. During
the final children’s chorus, somebody’s music stand
appears to have tipped over, leaving as evidence a loud metallic
clatter, the sound of pages flying across the soundstage, and
an Oxbridge-accented voice hissing, “Oh, bugger!” My
own view of this CD, though rather more bemused, can be summarized
in roughly the same words.