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Friday, February 26, 2016

Concert Review: To Battle the Giants

At the head of an army of performers, Kent Tritle takes on Mahler's Eighth.
Gustav Mahler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Painting by Max Oppenheimer © 1935 Estate of the Artist.
You don't hear the Mahler Eighth much. 

Nicknamed the "Symphony of 1,000", it is the orchestral equivalent of Rabelais' medieval giant Gargantua. It requires two mixed choruses, children’s chorus, eight vocal soloists and an army of musicians with extra brass and wind, organ and a phalanx of strings. The score itself is another giant a 90-minute Pantagruel consisting of just two movements. For reasons known only to himself, Mahler paired the medieval hymn “Veni, creator spiritus” with a setting of the final scene of Part II of Goethe’s Faust, a gauzy exercise in German mysticism that depicts the long-suffering title character’s final transit into Heaven.

On Thursday night, it was the task of Kent Tritle to battle these giants. His armies: the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, the Oratorio Society of New York, the Cathedral Choristers of St. John the Divine and the MSM Men’s and Women's Choruses plus the aforementioned eight soloists. This was the second of two performances this week at the Cathedral Church of St. John The Divine on the Upper West Side. Like Faust’s final trip to the celestial sphere, it proved a very difficult climb.

The biggest obstacle was the church itself. This ungainly, shambling mass of granite is often used for such big concerts, but proved a disastrous choice for a work that requires delicate antiphony between its two massed choruses and the children's chorus that proves all-important in the Faust movement. Too often, guttural roar of the church’s organ drowned out singers and symphony alike. Finally the use of in-house amplification (with the first set of speakers placed about thirty feet from the artists) created an unwholesome ricochet effect, forcing the music to compete against itself for the listener’s attention.

These three factors reduced the opening movement to a Babel, punctuated by loud utterances from the tuxed-and-gowned soloists. The low frequencies of the orchestra were muffled by the vertically arched transept that the ensemble was seated under. The high strings and massed winds were muffled by the chorus. Finally, the 8,514-pipe Great Organ drowned out everyone whenever it was playing. Although they were following Mr. Tritle’s baton, it sounded like everyone just got in each other’s way.

Part of the problem lay with Mr. Tritle, who should have recognized the inherent acoustic problems of the church. He led the massy forces in a foursquare style that made the music trudge when it should have soared. The start of the second movement was tranquility itself, with the chorus and organ silenced and the orchestra depicting Goethe’s forbidding mountain scenery, the setting for the denouement of Faust. Here at least, one  could to hear the high level of the MSM musicians, but this peace would not last.

The second part of the Eighth is effectively three symphonic movements fused together. This is the  closest Mahler ever came to writing opera. It was the task of the eight soloists to infuse personality into Goethe’s abstract characters. For the most part, they succeeded. Sara Murphy was a formidable presence, singing with a keen edge that cut through the thick bramble of the score. Bryn Holdsworth was Gretchen, the heroine of Faust now identified in the libretto as A Penitent. Tenor John Tiranno sang Doctor Marianus with more enthusiasm than precision. Baritone Jesse Blumberg had a light but supple instrument. As the Pater Profundus,  bass Adam Lau sang with a rich, dark tone, undermined only by his insistence on bellowing directly into the mic.

At last, the female soloists joined forces for trio praising the Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary) sung from the pulpit by soprano Jana McIntyre. This led to the entry of the children's chorus, a sweet balm and the lead-up to the apotheosis of the work: the Chorus Mysticus. This slow-rising tide of voices triumphed at last over the wretched acoustics, creating the diatonic resolution and sonic redemption that this symphony works so hard to achieve. Was this lofty destination worth the path of struggle? Only Goethe’s angels know the answer to that. 

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