Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mahler Goes to Heaven

Mahler's Eighth Symphony is a gargantuan, bombastic ninety minutes of music whose premiere in 1910 "involved 858 singers and an orchestra of 171, which, if you add Mahler, himself, comes to 1,030 persons.)"

Though I don't know how many people were involved in the San Francisco Symphony's four performances of the work last week, it was certainly a huge crowd.

The performances were being recorded for the last installment of Michael Tilson-Thomas and his orchestra's complete Mahler cycle, and if the final, Sunday afternoon performance was any indication, it was well worth recording. I saw most of the same forces attempt the same work two years ago (click here) and was put off by the symphony, but this time I was spellbound. I have no idea why this should be so, but most professional critics felt the same way (click here for Janos Gereben's take).

One holdover who hadn't changed was the soprano soloist Elza van den Heever (above, middle), who stole the show two years ago, and who was first among equals this time around.

I've noticed that many professional musicians tend towards tunnel vision when playing or singing with large ensembles. They learn their part, focus on that, and essentially ignore everything else around them.

Elza doesn't seem to do that and instead it felt like all the hundreds of performers were channeling their energy on the Davies Hall stage directly through her. At the end of the performance, when all forces are singing the heavenly finale, she actually seemed to be burst into tears from the emotion of the moment.

She quickly recovered for the bows and turned on a thousand-watt smile that lit up the hall.

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