Impressive Mahler Eighth marks Boston Symphony's happy hundredth

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its 100th season with lots of special events. Over the next few years, 12 commissioned works will be heard, along with a great quantity of works either commissioned by the orchestra in the past, or given their US premieres by it.

The season opened in September with a new work by Leonard Bernstein, then audiences heard the William Schuman Third Symphony, which Serge Koussevitsky premiered in 1941. Another aspect of this 100th anniversary is the special event that might otherwise not happen, as in the case of the Boston Symphony's first performance in Boston of Mahler's Eighth Symphony.

Mahler's setting of the closing pages of Goethe's "Faust" is an ambitious undertaking, requiring a minimum of 360 people (though Stokowski used 1,069 for his performances). Symphony Hall was tested to the limit and then some to make room for the forces, invading not only the front sections of the first balcony, but the first few rows of the orchestra seat as well.

The Eighth is a work easy to pick on, not so easy to comprehend. As Michael Steinberg points out in the note used for the Boston performances, "The Symphony , like [Goethe's] 'Faust' itself, is something to be lived with a long time in order that the richly intricate network of references and allusions might take on clarity." At first listening it seems merely a rehash of old themes and ideas Mahler used in other works. Further study reveals a plan, a point to it all, a richness of texture, and an imposing architecture, from the opening organ chord to the final apotheosis and peroration for brass and orchestra.

Obviously, the best sort of performance is going to be by one who understands all this and has lived with the Mahler output for a good deal of time. Ozawa and the orchestra rendered a glamorous, opulent, aurally thrilling account. It lacked the superb texturing and detailing of the more seasoned and dedicated Mahler conductors, but on his own terms, Ozawa's performance was nothing short of amazing.

As concertgoers in Carnegie Hall were to hear later, Ozawa revels in the large-scale moment, piling sound upon sound with superb control of all the forces and balances, even if that much decibel power proved too much for Symphony Hall's legendary, though contained, acoustics (later it would sound much cleaner in Carnegie Hall).

Hearing this music with a world-class ensemble in optimum condition is something of a revelation. Each challenge was easily ridden by the orchestra, from the delicate harp to the blazing brass. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was its usual marvelous self, and the combined boys choirs of Boston and Brooklyn were wonderfully feisty. Along with the secure but metallic soprano of Faye Robinson, the soloists included Judith Blegen, Deborah Sasson (an especially rich-voiced Mater gloriosa), Florence Quivar, Lorna Myers, Kenneth Riegel, Benjamin Luxon (is there a better Pater ecstaticus today?), and Gwynne Howell.

James David Christie received major billing as organist, something almost never accorded the regular Boston Symphony organist, Berj Zamkochian. (How unfortunate he was not included in this event, for whatever reason, particularly since Philips is recording the event for posterity.)

Ozawa also found the challenges of Bernstein's new piece very much to his liking. It is not a "serious" piece, not even the "Fanfare" the BSO was promised, but rather a witty, intricate elaboration on that "Fanfare" full of personal details meaningful to the composer, entitled "Divertimento." Whimsy reigns, and it is the sort of virtuosic and fun work that Pops audiences should revel in -- which is not to say that Symphony subscribers did anything less than enjoy it to the hit, as it passed from blues to samba of fox trot. (The program order was mysteriously switched so that the Bernstein would close the program. It was meant to precede Rudolph Serkin's eloquent account of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto, and Ozawa's brilliant performance of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra," a closing piece if ever there was one!)

William Schuman's Third Symphony is an American classic, and rightfully so. It is tuneful in its austere way, superbly crafted, and strikingly orchestrated. Americans tend to forget even the good works this country has produced. It the self-deprecating streak that still pervades American music and concertgoing is to be reversed, it is vital that works such as Schuman's accessible, likable symphony be heard. Besides, it is his 70th birthday year, so what better way to celebrate it than with his most acclaimed opus.

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