Mahler's Eighth is a glorious, life-affirming, nature-savoring, heaven-directed symphony. Written for hordes of vocal soloists and choristers, along with a very large orchestra, it is as big as a symphony gets without becoming nutty. Even in these days, when performances of Mahler's other symphonies are common, it requires a special occasion, and much expense, to hear.
Often called (although always optimistically) "Symphony of a Thousand," the Eighth, which had its premiere in 1910, arouses the same spirit that the Hollywood Bowl founders, 11 years later, hoped to summon. In this out-sized utopian vision, music is married to nature and the firmament, and the throngs of mankind are summoned to an all-embracing spiritual encounter.
And so slightly less than half-a-thousand performers (a respectable number for a latter-day performance) overflowed the Hollywood Bowl stage and two side towers Tuesday night, almost exactly 75 years after the first classical music concert under the stars in Cahuenga Pass (it was two days short, but who's counting?) to celebrate the anniversary and begin a new summer season. It was a generous and, given the realities of the modern world, defiant gesture. Mahler, I'm fairly certain, would have hated it.
The Hollywood Bowl, in 1996, is a victim of its own success. The opening night of a new season is society night, and it is unreasonable to expect patrons to quickly fold up picnic tables, put away food baskets and shut up for a 76-minute spiritual journey. But if they don't, others who love the Eighth--and those of us who do tend to have an incommensurate love for it--will be cantankerous.
Nor is there any escaping the fact that Mahler's era and that of the Theosophists who discovered the Bowl site is long gone. For better or worse, this was an Eighth for our time, a time when one increasingly has to work to feel a joyous connection with humanity or nature. For instance, car alarms from the parking lot behind the shell intruded. A sonic interruption, surely, but more disturbing for the palpable sensation of a paranoia so great that alarms are set even in stacked parking.
The performance itself also had a technological feel to it. Partly that is the sound system, which has a harder time achieving the sensuous effects of massed voices and instruments than of solo ones. Moreover, Robert Shaw, the warm, old-school humanist who was to have conducted, took ill, and he was replaced by Eliahu Inbal, who is very much in the mold of the modern maestro well known for his Mahler recordings, which are clean, glossy, carefully detailed, unfussy and faceless.
Making his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut, the Israeli conductor exhibited some of the virtues of his recordings. Instrumental textures tended toward transparency. He had a tight control over the large shape of the score. He treated the symphony's two parts--the first is an epic setting of a medieval Latin hymn, the second a dramatic setting of the ending of the second part of "Faust," with all of Goethe's angels and ascended beings in magnificent display--as a whole, without intermission. It was a performance never in doubt that it was going somewhere important.
But Inbal is an aggressive driver, the kind who rushes up to stop signs and slams on the brakes, the kind who careens around corners too fast. There is no real sense of danger in this, the man at the wheel being so clearly in control. Still, it is the kind of ride during which you wish the driver would just cut it out. The orchestra and singers sometimes sounded as if that was their wish, as they scurried to keep up, and mostly did.
The singing, however, helped the performance greatly. The eight soloists were appropriately operatic voices. And even if Inbal tended to push them beyond comfort, this is striving music, and, given the limitations of performing outdoors, more is better than less. One was particularly glad to have soaring sopranos (Faye Robinson, Christine Brewer and Gwendolyn Bradley) and the strong mezzo-sopranos (Florence Quivar and Janis Taylor). Tenor Michael Sylvester had the requisite heft, Gregg Baker was an imposingly dramatic baritone. Steven West was the more effortful bass.
The William Hall Master Chorale, All-American Boys Chorus and the Master Chorale Children's Chorus all inspired the right kind of confidence.
And thrice the heavens opened. Twice when the off-stage brass at the endings of each movement came in brilliantly from on high at one tower. Another time when Mater Gloriosa (Gwendolyn Bradley) appeared in the "Faust" movement on the other tower.
At such moments the Bowl became just the vast space that the music was asking for and that no conventional concert hall can contain--nothing else mattered, not even the tacky electric organ. It became evident that technology has not completely demolished the spirit or environment.