Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Medinah Temple, May 30

By Sarah Bryan Miller

Mahler’s Symphony no. 8 in E-flat Major, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” is the ne plus ultra of the symphonic form. Other very worthwhile symphonies have been written since its premiere (and may yet be written), but in some ways Mahler took the symphony as far as it could go, in his use of massive forces–more than 400 in the Chicago Symphony’s performances last weekend, more than 1,000 in the first performances, in 1910–and in the way he blurred the lines between choral work and orchestral composition. It’s the end of a particular road. Other symphonic composers have echoed Mahler’s late-Romantic conclusions; none has equaled his achievement–and it’s possible that they couldn’t have after the world was scarred by World War I.

Beethoven had finished his symphonic work with the genius stroke of wedding voices to instruments, a complete and soul-satisfying composition that combines profound po-etry with noble music, and Mendelssohn had continued where Beethoven had left off, using voices as naturally as he might a specialized group of instruments. But Mahler fused voices and instruments in a way that makes you wonder how other composers managed without singers. Certainly his greatest symphonies are those in which he used the voice as an integral part of the work.

Many critics and scholars have noted Mahler’s devotion to Bach in his later years–scheduling Bach’s compositions along with his own at concerts, editing bits and pieces of Bach’s instrumental works–as well as Bach’s strong influence on his music. Mahler’s Eighth is a more direct descendant of Bach’s chorales and motets than of Beethoven’s Ninth, to which it’s often compared. But Beethoven used voices as just another instrument, sometimes with a brutal effect on performers–anyone who wants to sing Beethoven had better plan a Mozartean palate cleansing afterward, because too much Beethoven will wreck a voice. Both Bach and Mahler understood the voice and how it works. Beethoven was also pursuing a neoclassical humanism, whereas Bach and Mahler were seeking a specifically Christian spiritualism. Beethoven comes up with a tune and then rings all its changes; Bach and Mahler are more inventive in their melodies and where they take them. Beethoven gave composers permission to use voice in their symphonies; Bach was the inspiration for how to do it, and Mahler took the idea to its logical conclusion.

Unlike Mahler’s other symphonies, the Eighth is a choral work from its opening chord to its conclusion. Mahler chose to set two great, seemingly unrelated texts, but both deal with redemption and God’s love for his human creation. Part one of the symphony is “Veni creator spiritus,” an eighth-century hymn for Whitsunday, or Pentecost, the day when, according to the New Testament, the Holy Ghost descended to the apostles, bestowing on them the “sevenfold gifts” of the Spirit. This is a fundamentally Christian text written in the age of faith, before the Renaissance raised the possibility that there could be worthwhile pursuits other than holiness, before there was again science worthy of the name, before the influence of neoclassicism. The words ask for God’s enlightenment, grace, and peace and for the gift of caritas–love and charity.

Part two tackles one of the most sacred works of “holy German art,” as Wagner put it–the last scene of Goethe’s monumental Faust, Faust’s apotheosis. The philosopher who sold his soul to the Devil is redeemed by love and welcomed by Gretchen, assorted hosts of angels, and the Mater Gloriosa. Though intensely theatrical in its language, this scene wasn’t touched by the composers who set other bits and pieces of Faust–and probably a good thing too, given the technical difficulties of having holy hermits who levitate and descend and crowds of whirling airborne angels. Mahler gave this scene music as mystical, varied, and all-encompassing as the poetry itself. He begins with a tone poem as expressive as anything Strauss ever wrote, then expands it with the chorus and soloists, exploring spiritual subtleties and delivering some richly satisfying holy bombast. At the end he opens the curtain of heaven and eternity to mortals for just a moment.

No one does holy bombast better than the CSO, here magnificently augmented with a host of extra musicians: instrumentalists, an immense chorus, nine soloists, and a children’s choir. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach, about to begin his second season as music director of the Ravinia Festival, has a secure grip on this enormous score and its varied forces, and brought out its subtleties as well as its big moments. As an interpreter of Mahler, he’s absolutely splendid.

Conductors, who get regular aerobic exercise as a part of their jobs, tend to be in good shape, and Eschenbach has moves worthy of a professional athlete, including leaping into the air at one point. But his moves don’t seem calculated for show, the way the pirouetting and posing of some conductors is; it flows naturally from his involvement in the music and the things he’s trying to communicate to his musicians. It’s hard to think of a better team to do this music than this conductor and this orchestra, who brought the CSO’s 105th season to a dazzling close.

The soloists–sopranos Sharon Sweet, Marvis Martin, and Ying Huang; mezzo-sopranos Florence Quivar and Janis Taylor; tenor Vinson Cole; baritone Richard Zeller; and bass Eric Halfvarson–were all acceptable except Sweet, who was squally. Cole did yeoman’s service as Doctor Marianus, Martin sang beautifully as Gretchen, and Halfvarson was a solid Pater Profundus. The CSO Chorus, helped out by the Waukegan Concert Chorus and a lot of ringers (many from the Lyric Opera Chorus), put forth a tremendous sound that was accurate and overwhelming.

The resplendently tacky Medinah Temple isn’t the best hall for refined playing. There were moments when the brasses swamped everyone but the adult chorus, and the noisy air-conditioning system made it difficult to appreciate the delicate work of the strings. The Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus, in the dress circle off to the side, were at first inaudible, drowned out by the orchestra and adult singers; someone then cranked up the volume on their microphones, with the result that their voices were heard through the speakers on either side of the proscenium; those speakers are probably just fine for the circus, but they don’t do much for singing voices. The effect was unsettling. Part of the problem may have been the placement of the children, though Ying Huang, right above them on the balcony level, sounded distant but perfectly audible. And there were simply not enough of them, given the powerhouses with whom they were singing.

The length of programs has been shrinking drastically in recent years, but this one was a bit short even by 1990s standards. It would have been pleasant to have had a curtain-raiser along the lines of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy or one of the Bach motets that Mahler so loved–and then we wouldn’t have had the mood-shattering raised lights and seating of latecomers during what should have been a minimal pause between parts one and two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Jim Steere.