Christoph Eschenbach

Image: Eric Brissaud

Symphony of a Thousand
May 10 at 7:30
$39–145
Jones Hall
615 Louisiana St
713-224-7575
houstonsymphony.org 

Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony opens, gloriously, with an invitation: “Come, Creator Spirit, visit the mind of your people.” Known for his large-scale work, any symphony by Mahler is a meritorious undertaking. But the Houston Symphony doesn’t just get points for putting it in their repertoire. Mahler’s text refers to “heights of everlasting realms,” and this performance may be the first time I’ve ever actually felt transported there.

Aptly, Mahler called his Eighth Symphony a “gift to the nation.” His wife, Alma Mahler, recounts that Mahler was stricken with “the spectre of failing inspiration” before he summoned a “superhuman energy” and completed the score, she claims, in a mere eight weeks. The symphony is split into two parts: the first is based on the hymn “Veni creator spiritus” and the second on Goethe’s Faust, Part II. Firmly rooted in E-flat major, the first part lays a motivic foundation of fourths that develops, beautifully, through to the final 70-measure coda. 

Beyond its innovative score, this symphony stands apart in sheer magnitude. Nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand,” it requires one of the largest orchestras of any work in the symphonic repertoire. The Houston Symphony’s production features an astonishing 437 musicians—performers packed wall to wall, with rows of singers stacked high on risers at the back of the stage and others waiting in the eaves and the balcony above.

My first Mahler experience as a performer was with the Oregon East Symphony in the small town of Pendleton. I was called in as violin reinforcement for what someone cleverly (and officially) termed the “Redneck Mahler Concert Series.” The hall was not nearly big enough. Half the choir had to stand off-stage in the wings, forcing the brass to huddle by the backstage exit. But that was nothing compared to the man who introduced the performance. He crawled onto the stage on his hands and knees, moo’ed, and then drawled “Welcome to the Roooodeo!” It’s not exactly how Mahler’s majestic work usually transpires, but even then the music poured out triumphant, dignified, and inspired.

I cannot imagine a better conductor than Christoph Eschenbach, the Houston Symphony’s music director from 1988-1999, to direct such a masterpiece. Eschenbach strikes a rare balance between authority and enthusiasm—there is no doubt he is in command even when he leaps up from his podium, his shiny patent-leather shoes catching the slightest bit of air.

In addition to the singers towering behind the orchestra—a combination of six individual choirs—the Houston Symphony assembled eight remarkable solo vocalists. Kelley O’Connor, a mezzo-soprano with a particularly opulent instrument, makes her Houston Symphony debut along with soprano Marisol Montalvo, whose voice sang out like a heavenly gift from the balcony above the audience. Sopranos Erin Wall and Twyla Robinson and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove embodied both solo and ensemble interludes with virtuosic elegance, while gathered on the opposite side of the stage were tenor John Pickle, baritone Markus Werba, and bass John Relyea. From where I was sitting, it was difficult to hear Pickle at times, although he has a rather swarthy voice for a tenor, and Werba and Relyea’s voices carried well.

The second part of the symphony, which hands off phrases quickly from one section to another, requires a special sensitivity to nuance so that the musical thought carries over—a feat the Houston Symphony achieved seamlessly. In a quiet round of string solos, principal violist Wayne Brooks maintained the musical line while also leaving a lasting, ethereal impression in the space of a few measures.

I appreciate that the Houston Symphony projects the English translation of the text on two screens flanking the stage. This prevents that extra noise of audience members riffling through their programs, but it also adds a theatrical element to the symphony well suited to Mahler’s grandiose style. Hit by a massive wave of sound in the closing measures, I looked up to read “All that passes away is only a likeness / The inadequacy of earth here finds fulfillment.” I can’t think of a better way to sum the experience up.