The Eighth is Enough 

With Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the Virginia Symphony tackles a rarely heard master work

click to enlarge mahler.jpg

Philadelphia scalpers loved Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony. At least they loved the buzz around the work's 1916 U.S. premiere that pushed ticket prices on the street from 10 cents to $100. News of the Eighth's popularity in Europe and its mammoth number of musicians -- a producer in Munich called it the "Symphony of a Thousand" -- drove ticket sales, and the Philadelphia Orchestra extended its run from three performances to nine.

With a chorus of 950, an orchestra of 110, and nine vocal soloists, those shows lived up to the marketing. Although the symphony often is performed with fewer musicians, the nickname has stuck. But why did Mahler want so many people on stage, anyway? Is this all about size?

There's more to the story than numbers. The symphony's content is the truly interesting part, says Virginia Symphony's music director, JoAnn Falletta, who will conduct the work this weekend as part of the Virginia Arts Festival.

If you're wondering: This one has chorus of 400, an orchestra of 100 and eight soloists.

"Mahler filled his symphonies with everything -- nature, hope, tragedy, irony. It's almost indescribable what he's able to fit into one symphonic journey," she says. The Eighth Symphony, which Mahler composed in 1906, shows that the individual can change the world. "He was writing about what man can do … the ability of the inspired person to lift mankind."

The symphony's poetic theme is one of redemption through love. The first movement uses the text of a ninth-century Latin hymn to the Creator, and the second movement sets to music the ending of Goethe's "Faust," in which Faust escapes his bargain with Mephistopheles due in no small part to the forgiveness of his wronged lover Gretchen.

It was considered highly unorthodox to combine two different languages -- not to mention sacred and secular texts -- in the same composition, but the panreligious Mahler was "not bound by any convention," Falletta says.

Mahler tried something new musically, as well. Most choral symphonies added voices in discrete segments, almost as a special effect. In Mahler's Eighth, either the chorus or one of eight soloists sings for nearly the duration of the work. He wanted people to imagine the human voices becoming planets and suns that revolved in the cosmos, to hear the universe singing and resounding with the music. So size does matter.

The work has "an ecstasy that overflows the bounds of the symphony," Falletta says. "Mahler needed an extravagance of forces to … link the power of human beings with the concept of a greater force."

To attain this effect, the Virginia Symphony Chorus will be joined by singers from the choirs of Old Dominion and Christopher Newport universities, the Virginia Children's Chorus, and nearly 120 members of the Richmond Symphony Chorus.

Any logistical challenges created by rehearsing and performing with 500 people are overshadowed by the amazing opportunity for musicians and listeners to experience Mahler's Eighth Symphony, Falletta says. "It might never come around again."

The Virginia Symphony will perform Mahler's "Eighth Symphony" on Saturday, May 26, 8 p.m. at William and Mary Hall in Williamsburg, and Sunday, May 27, 3 p.m. at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. $20-85. For information, go to vafest.org.

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