Mahler's 'Symphony of a Thousand' sparkles with 350
By Alan G. Artner, Special to the Tribune
April 21, 2010

Music that professionals once played with difficulty is now often performed by semi-professionals with a command equal to, or greater than, professional forebears.

That miracle doubtless encouraged the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, which on Monday night at Orchestra Hall gave a creditable account of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the "Symphony of a Thousand."

At Mahler's centenary 50 years ago, presentation of the Eighth by a community orchestra was unthinkable. The work is the pinnacle of monumental symphonic style. Its combination of transcendent power and patient mysticism challenged the greatest interpreters of the day, and there was not even one adequate recording.

The more than 1,000 orchestral and vocal performers of the 1910 premiere gave the work its nickname. But the score does not specify that number and the musical content does not require it. On Monday, forces were just under 350, which was adequate to Mahler's intent of getting "the whole universe ... to ring and resound."

Mahler performances now tend toward precision and self-effacement, which is a world away from the interpretative extremes set in the 1960s. But Monday's performance did not suffer from lack of temperament. Music director Jay Friedman frequently pushed his forces to their limits, pressing on relentlessly in the extroverted first part and slowing dramatically for the open-hearted euphoria of Part Two.

Casualties along the way were clarity, pitch-perfect tone and lyrical refinement. But when the double chorus sang and the eight vocalists relaxed, you often felt dedication that made up for a sagging orchestral line or forced vocal solo.

The three male vocalists had the most comprehensible diction, and Kurt Hansen coped admirably with the high tessitura of his character in Part Two. Marcy Stonikas, Tracy Watson and Elizabeth Norman had music requiring delicacy as well as push, and they generally achieved it. All five choral ensembles, including the Oak Park and River Forest Children's Chorus, submerged behind the orchestra, showed welcome spiritual fervor.


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