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The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with other singers, crowd onto stage for Mahler's Eighth.

Review: Atlanta Symphony and Spano search for balance with Mahler’s Eighth

A performance of Mahler’s monumental Eighth Symphony (1906), nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand,” is bound to be a highlight of the season. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has a storied history with the work, with a famous recording from 1991 conducted by Robert Shaw. The ASO’s concert Thursday required a packed stage full of performers: in addition to an expanded orchestra, there were eight well-known vocal soloists, the glee clubs from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, the Gwinnett Young Singers and, of course, the renowned ASO Chorus.  

The concert, which was well attended despite chilly, rainy weather, repeats Saturday with a sold-out performance.

The evening was one of several culminations of Robert Spano’s two-decade tenure as music director. In collaboration with him, sopranos Evelina Dobračeva, Erin Wall and Nicole Cabell made appearances; mezzo-sopranos included Michelle DeYoung and Kelley O’Connor; the tenor was Nicky Spence; and Russell Braun and Morris Robinson were baritone and bass. 

Mahler’s Eighth, in the tradition of Beethoven, expounds on themes of redemptive love and adds that of salvation through self-negation. These ideas are in reaction to the pessimism of Mahler’s middle period. The Eighth, which premiered in 1910 as a communal celebration, returns to the optimism of his early works, almost as if one were picking up with the triumphant conclusion to his second symphony, the “Resurrection.” Most tellingly, the Second starts with orchestra and ends with chorus, while the Eighth hits the ground running with chorus. 

A horn section in the Symphony Hall balcony for Mahler's Eighth.
A horn section was stationed in the balcony at Symphony Hall for Mahler’s Eighth.

The formal organization of the Eighth is unusual. Instead of being divided into four or more distinct movements in the symphonic tradition, it is divided into two large parts. Part I, set in an expanded sonata form, is a new setting of the Latin text of the ninth-century Pentecost hymn, “Veni creator spiritus” (“Come, Creator Spirit”). Part II sets the closing scene from Goethe’s Faust, in which Faust is forgiven for his crimes and permitted to rise into Heaven. 

To its fans, Mahler’s Eighth is an often ethereal, otherworldly statement on religion and philosophy, plus lots of fun for the pure spectacle. With a focus on polyphony, the first part is closer at times to a baroque oratorio than a romantic symphony. Unlike in his earlier symphonies, Mahlerian stylistic fingerprints such as Viennese folk dances are largely absent from this work. Therefore, a successful performance highlights expressive contrasts while transporting audiences to a highly spiritual plane. Leonard Bernstein’s live performance and Seiji Ozawa’s recording for Phillips come close to reaching these two goals.

Mahler’s Eighth is extremely difficult to pull off for most orchestras and choirs. The orchestral score is surpassingly complex; the conductor has to balance the dynamic level of two choirs, vocal soloists and one of the largest orchestras in the repertoire; and balance between forces is often a challenge to achieve. Very often, choral parts double orchestral ideas, sometimes embellished in only one part. The vocal soloists are very often asked to sing in a high tessitura, sometimes higher than in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (especially with the sopranos).

In a recent review, I criticized Spano for a one-dimensional focus on timekeeping at the expense of interpersonal interaction, balance and expression. Last night was no exception, although he was expressively engaged at moments. When he was on top of his game, he physically mimicked the intense vibrato of passionate string melodies. (To be fair, timekeeping is an important task in this work with so many performers and rhythmically different parts.)

Robert Spano conducts Mahler's Eighth at Atlanta's Symphony Hall.
Mahler’s Eighth is a complex work to conduct with numerous moving parts.

In the highly polyphonic Part I, the ASO provided plenty of dynamic power, especially in the coda, a Gloria Patri foreshadowing Poulenc. Overall, the organ could be heard, although at times I would have appreciated lower, fuller bass tones. (Atlanta Symphony Hall has no pipe organ, but we deserve a concert organ that can pull this off.) Among the singers, sopranos Dobračeva and Wall stood out for their rich sound color, beautiful portamentos — slides between notes — and ample power, even seeming competitive at times with each other.

In the often more subdued Part II, both strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble’s preparation came into focus. The dark colors and muted sounds of the “Forest and Caves” scene were performed admirably by ASO brass, whose rounded tones were always cued precisely by Spano. Throughout this section, in addition to the consistent, stellar wind section, the violins were constantly expressive and subtle. Building on his recent success in Heldenleben, Concertmaster David Coucheron’s solos were outstanding – spontaneous, fresh, well balanced and well timed.

When the men in the choruses entered at the beginning of Part II, their tone was weak and lacked focus: this is an instance where Spano should have focused on the choruses, cued their entrances and encouraged them to project their voices so they could be heard over the low brass and pizzicatos of the orchestra.

Braun, singing as the floating Pater ecstaticus, was compelling and dramatic, proclaiming ideas of self-sacrifice with intense, clear enunciation. Robinson, whose basso profundo is always a highlight of a concert, was not quite as convincing as he was last spring in Fidelio: he could have used louder, clearer ends of words. Recently, under Spano, the orchestra has tended to be too loud too often, and his direction has sometimes been lacking in lyricism and dynamic direction. For instance, during this solo, a lower dynamic level in the orchestra would have helped. 

The ASO and Chorus made a famed recording of Mahler’s Eighth in 1991 under Robert Shaw.

In the succession of various choruses in Part II, which discuss Faust’s redemption, the “Younger Angels” stood out for their rich choral tone as they sang about smiting the Devil. In his solos in this part, the tenor, Spence, as Doctor Marianus, had a strong tone in his middle range but struggled at times with pitches above an A 440 and lacked power in his lower range (below middle C). 

Three highlights of the work’s end: soprano Cabell’s portrayal of the Mater Gloriosa, who provided floating, gentle tones from the balcony; a sensitive, extremely soft rendition of the final “Chorus Mysticus,” cued delicately by Spano and expressing Mahler’s hope that the passing of earthly things is an illusion; and the spectacular high ranges of sopranos Dobračeva and Wall, with their high Cs. 

Afterward, the audience left into the cold, damp night entertained by the spectacle, by standout solo performances and by the laudable contributions of the Atlanta-area volunteer singers. Although a highlight of the season due to the sheer number of performers, in this performance the Eighth generally lacked the ancient atmosphere needed to draw listeners in, and the balance of all forces was hit-or-miss.

For the ASO’s next music director, a necessary qualification should be a thorough commitment to achieving balance between forces. It would also help if they had experience with choral directing so that volunteer choirs could sing at their most confident and so all vocal phrases could be tapered artistically.