ASO gives triumphant performance of Mahler’s eighth symphony

The performance space at Symphony Hall is a 5,000-square-foot expanse of honey-colored hardwood surrounded on three sides by an acoustic shell, creating a finite space for musicians. Even within these constraints, the space has rarely seemed inadequate during classical concerts.

On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s expansive eighth symphony Thursday tested the bounds of the platform.

The glee clubs from Spelman and Morehouse colleges and the Gwinnett Young Singers joined the ASO Chorus, swelling the choir to about 340 voices, on risers at the rear and sides of the stage, creating walls of sound pinning in the 116 members of an enlarged Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. As if 450-odd musicians weren’t enough, Mahler’s work also calls for eight vocal soloists. Sopranos Evelina Dobračeva, Erin Wall and Nicole Cabell; mezzo-sopranos Michelle DeYoung and Kelley O’Connor; tenor Toby Spence; baritone Russell Braun; and bass Morris Robinson joined the proceedings.

Mahler’s composition is colloquially known as the “Symphony of One Thousand,” and it certainly felt like there were that many musicians onstage; music director Robert Spano at first seemed lost in a teeming sea of concert black dress; occasionally, it was hard not to think of him as a traffic cop, trying to make sure everyone was in the right place at the right time while still crafting a compelling musical experience.

The substantial work is divided into two sections: a triumphant setting of the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” and a more subdued, but no less celebratory, interpretation of the final scene from “Faust” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The tone is set immediately with an earth-rumbling E-flat major chord from the combined choirs, sung Thursday in a clarion double-forte on the second measure of the 80-minute work.

Throughout the loud and brilliant work, the assembled voices — the Gwinnett Singers stood in a tight configuration at the front of the chorus risers surrounded by the intermingled choirs — sounded clean and clear in both exhilarating high notes and luxurious pianissimo passages. Any rough-around-the-edges entrances or cutoffs could be excused for the overall impression of the performance, which was simply thrilling. The singing is demanding, especially for the soloists. Occasionally, the stress of so much high, loud singing appeared in some of the voices, but the guest artists gave superb performances. The women especially sounded dazzling both individually and combined in magnificent duets and trios. Among the men, Robinson stood out.

While vocals are arguably the most central part of Mahler’s eighth, the orchestra supports the whole endeavor. (The enlarged ASO featured two harps, three keyboards, a mandolin and extended instrumental sections meant to match the full-bore singing of the choirs.)

After playing at full volume for nearly the entire first part — brass in the balcony provided surround sound to the thundering closing of the opening section — the orchestra began the second section with an extended, luminous symphonic passage. Cello and bass opened with a throbbing pizzicato, a deep, round tone felt in the chest. From there, the violins answered with a shiny, playful pizzicato. As the rest of the orchestra slowly awakened, a slinky oboe rose above the orchestral whispers. The horns affected a hushed, shimmering quality, where moments earlier they had roared with celebratory excitement. This was a respite from the sheer intensity of the first movement, and all the more beautiful for the stark contrast. The orchestra kept its drive in this soft interval, one of the most beautiful passages of the evening, pushing the music forward toward the choir’s entrance. Intonation and entrance issues wash away due to the overall impression.

This once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime work is a suitable valedictory during this long farewell to Spano, and it is being recorded for a future release, but it’s incredible that the performance only marks the 2019-2020 debut of the ASO Chorus. The ensemble still has some significant choral works on the schedule, including a performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” at Carnegie Hall in New York, but it will be hard to top Thursday’s stunning achievement.

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