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A Thousand Points of Sound : William Hall Will Corral Hundreds of Performers for Mahler's Eighth

May 01, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's an old joke about an inept airline pilot who'd just made an incredibly abrupt landing. "Boy," he says to the co-pilot, "that runway was short. And so wide!"

Mahler's Eighth Symphony--the exalted "Symphony of a Thousand," the Spruce Goose of choral works--is finally landing in Orange County, with conductor William Hall at the controls and faced with a runway of similar proportions. Will it crash and burn?

"There are going to be problems, but not insurmountable," allowed Hall, who will gather 700 performers on the stage and in the loft and balconies of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove for performances Thursday and Friday. The orchestra of 110 musicians will be reconfigured into a space 23 feet deep and 100 feet wide--and that's just the start of the logistic and acoustic problems.

"Most church naves are what I call deep--[figuratively speaking] they run north to south," Hall explained. "This nave runs east and west. The length of it goes the wrong way. It's sideways.

"The musicians are going to have to play differently. Usually, the musicians listen while they play. In this hall, you can only listen to the musicians right around you. . . . They're going to have to trust the conductor on this one."

Amassed forces will include the William Hall Master Chorale, Children's Chorus and Orchestra; Chapman University Choir; Crystal Cathedral Choir and Children's Chorus; All-American Boys Chorus; a brass choir; sopranos Carol Neblett, Renee Sousa and Patricia Prunty; mezzo-sopranos Wendy Hillhouse and Martha Jane Weaver; tenor Thomas Oberjat; baritone Dean Elzinga; bass Louis Lebherz; and organist Frederick Swann.

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When Mahler conducted the triumphant premiere of the symphony in Munich's Exposition Hall in 1910, he used 1,028 performers--hence the moniker "Symphony of a Thousand"--though the score doesn't require that number. While Mahler used 328 additional children's voices, Hall notes that he has the Crystal Cathedral's Hazel Wright Organ--the fifth largest in the world--at his disposal:

"It's never been done with an organ this size. There's no question this will be the biggest downbeat ever given for the work," he said.

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According to Hall, he began to consider the cathedral as a venue when he discovered that 700 musicians wouldn't fit on the stage at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

"It would be more intimate in Segerstrom Hall," Hall said, "but the work wasn't designed for that. The first performance was in an exposition hall. There's certainly no intimacy at the outset--[the opening is] a choral symphony based on decibelic onslaught, the entire world screaming, 'Come, Holy Spirit!' The cathedral is very live--in a sense it's made to order."

The cathedral setting is appropriate in another sense: Mahler's plan for the work was to affirm the Christian faith in the power of the Holy Spirit and link it to Goethe's vision of mankind's redemption through love. The movements are respectively based on divine and human love. (The second movement derives from the final scene of Part II of Goethe's "Faust.")

"The first movement is like a great oratorio or cantata," Hall said. "The second movement is a sacred secular opera. . . ."

Despite the disparity of the two sections and even the use of two different languages--not to mention the score's intricacy and the magnitude of the thematic task before him--Mahler somehow manages to tie it all together.

"I had no idea the score would be so difficult to get into. . . . The luftpauses, the rubato . . . every other note is treated in some way," Hall noted. "As kids we were taught that here is a two-bar phrase, a four-bar phrase, an eight-bar phrase. With Mahler it can be a two-note phrase, and it's a germ that's going to explode.

"Mahler uses little snippets throughout the second movement. . . . I believe this symphony embodies the greatest display of leitmotifs, much more than Wagner."

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The work embodies Goethe's notions of the "eternal feminine" and "eternal masculine." The masculine is the striving, the struggle; the feminine is the restful goal.

Hall chose this symphony to culminate the Master Chorale's 40th anniversary season.

"Mahler told his friends that while his other works were works of sorrow, very morose, this is simply a work of joy," Hall said. "He told [conductor] Willem Mengelberg to imagine that the universe had burst into song, the planets and stars, everything moving as one magnificent dispenser of joy!"

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Mahler's Eighth was last performed in Southern California in 1985, at the Hollywood Bowl with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. It's slated for the Bowl again on July 9 with Robert Shaw at the helm; Hall has been retained to prepare the choruses.

It's easy to see why Shaw would want help.

"Every instrument is a soloist in this work," Hall noted. "Then add in 500 singers and eight soloists--well, it's just enormously complex. It's either a conductor's dream or a conductor's nightmare. I can't wait for that downbeat."

* The William Hall Master Chorale presents Mahler's Symphony No. 8 on Thursday and Friday at Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. 8 p.m. $15-$43. (714) 544-5679.

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