Schwarz's Mahler does the orchestra proud

The performance of Mahler's mightiest symphony coaxes deliriously fragile, tender, and rhapsodic playing from the orchestra and singers.
Crosscut archive image.

Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The performance of Mahler's mightiest symphony coaxes deliriously fragile, tender, and rhapsodic playing from the orchestra and singers.

Perhaps it's some sort of harmonic convergence.

Thanks in part to its colossal requirements on both the instrumental and vocal fronts, performances of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 (which was given its premiere in 1910) remain an anticipated special occasion. This glorious behemoth tends to be trotted out in festival settings or to observe a significant event — such as the tenth-anniversary season of Benaroya Hall in the case of the Seattle Symphony's performances this weekend.

By an odd coincidence, the West Coast is experiencing a wave of Mahler 8-mania this fall. Earlier in the month, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted it at the Hollywood Bowl, leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The San Francisco Symphony meanwhile has a Mahler 8 scheduled for November as part of its ongoing Mahler cycle with Michael Tilson Thomas.

It's an expensive undertaking. Plans had been afoot to perform the symphony during the orchestra's centennial season in 2003 but were nixed owing to the considerable add-on in costs. Several of the concert hall's rows have to be eaten up for playing space — not to mention the battalion of soloists and extra musicians required (seven trombones, for example).

Thursday night's concert marked Gerard Schwarz's first time conducting the work here — the only symphony hitherto missing from the maestro's own traversal of the Mahler cycle with the SSO. And to heighten the stakes further, this weekend's concerts are being recorded for a forthcoming commercial release.

Mahler sketched out the bulk of the two-part work with incredible speed at his summer retreat in 1906, observing that he was able to grasp its vast dimensions in a single "lightning vision." From the crashing wall of sound that sets it in motion (first choral, then orchestral), it seemed Schwarz was intent on recapturing that sense of sudden, illuminating, no-holds-barred inspiration. Paradoxically, while command of a composition's overall structural logic is clearly a strength of Schwarz, this is exactly what I found lacking in Part One. Much of the problem was undoubtedly a result of the complex balancing act required to adjust the swelling volumes among the work's mammoth chorus, vocal soloists, and brass-heavy orchestra.

Mahler sets an eighth-century Catholic hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus," as a muscular, uncharacteristically optimistic ode to the creative spirit. Here, though, the impression was one of storming through with a generalized bluster. Significant markers (such as the violin solo at "Infirma nostri corporis") whizzed carelessly by while other passages seemed randomly lingered over. Schwarz and the combined ensemble admirably mustered their all to clinch the pulse-raising lead-in to the moment of recapitulation.

The far more expansive Part Two–Mahler's idiosyncratic setting of the final scene of Goethe's Faust, Part II — inspired a remarkably more refined and convincing account. Where Part One is a tightly coiled cantata, Part Two is an opera in disguise, teeming with some of Mahler's most variegated textures. In contrast to the pell-mell opening movement, Schwarz showered spot-on attention and nuance to the score after an especially effective and suspenseful orchestral prelude.

He coaxed some of the most deliriously fragile, tender, rhapsodic playing I've heard the SSO and Schwarz accomplish together, above all in the later sections as Mahler's music spirals heavenwards to depict the assured redemption of Faust. It's a remarkably sensual Paradise–and source of much to come in Hollywood–that suggests a musical analogue to Klimt's alluring art nouveau colors and surfaces. Whether you consider it Kunst or kitsch, Schwarz and the SSO proved themselves compelling advocates of this extraordinary outpouring from Mahler.

This was work to be proud of on many levels. The principals who deserve singling out could form a chamber orchestra by themselves, with particularly valuable contributions from oboist Randall Ellis (guest player), clarinetist Christopher Sereque, Susan Gulkis Assadi on viola, Doug Davis on cello (guest player), Michael Crusoe on timpani, and harpist Valerie Muzzolini. The excellently prepared choral forces included the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Pro Musica–featuring ringing, crystalline sopranos on top and a powerful undergirding of basses–as well as the Northwest Boychoir.

And the lineup of soloists was almost uniformly superb. Outstanding were soprano Lauren Flanigan and alto Nancy Maultsby, who had the measure of true Mahlerian passion; Vinson Cole, on hand to provide his exquisite, ecstatic tenor as Doctor Marianus; and the reliably imposing bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd. Joseph Adam's full-bodied organ propped up the tonal firmament.


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