- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

In this age of cultural minimalism, Gustav Mahler’s monumental 8th Symphony might seem sadly anachronistic — an over-the-top example of late-Romantic gigantism. Nonetheless, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was packed Thursday evening in eager anticipation of the NSO’s performance of this work under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. By and large, the audience was not disappointed.

Not for nothing is this work subtitled “The Symphony of a Thousand.” Though it’s doubtful many performances of the 8th have actually employed that many musicians, the work calls for a huge orchestra, including piano, harmonium, organ, tubular bells and mandolin as well as enough choral singers to employ nearly every decent vocalist in Washington. Indeed, although the National Symphony Orchestra made do with roughly 500 performers, it needed the chorister seats and both sides of the first tier to fit in all the musicians, making this a sonic event of major proportions.

What’s the big deal? First, the 8th, for all its obvious merits and occasional faults, is not performed very often because it’s such a massive undertaking. Classical music-goers, including the composer’s legion of die-hard fans, don’t get many chances to hear the work live, making each performance a must-see event.

However, the sheer spectacle isn’t the sole reason. In a modern world beset by violence, Mahler’s 8th is an extended hymn to love and eternal joy, the most glorious proclamation ever written by this generally pessimistic, introverted composer. An hour and 20 minutes long, it consists of just two movements, an opening “prequel,” which is an extended setting of the ancient Catholic hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Creator Spirit”), and an hourlong finale. The latter is a near-operatic setting of the mystical conclusion of Goethe’s “Faust,” complete with loads of angelic choristers.

The opening section got off to a vigorous but sloppy start on Thursday evening. Each of the various choirs seemed to have a slightly different idea about the tempo than did Mr. Slatkin. Fortunately, after the introduction of the main material, maestro Slatkin was able to regain control. The remainder of the evening was generally smooth and often superb sailing.

If the initial movement finally proved glorious, the second was simply sublime. Mr. Slatkin’s huge forces navigated exquisitely through passages so quiet they could scarcely be heard, to the movement’s transcendent grand finale, certainly one of the most spiritually uplifting hymns in the literature. Indeed, in this final chorus, “Alles Vergangliche” (“All That Is Ephemeral”), the performers for one shining moment seemed uplifted by a divine spirit. It was a wrenching, emotional moment, lifting auditors to a blissful realm far removed from the horrors of the daily news.

Though there was some screechy and occasionally off-key singing by the generally fine soloists, a major hat-tip goes to Mr. Slatkin, the NSO and the armada of singers who assisted them in this epic event. Special praise goes to tenor Donald Litaker, who sang “Dr. Marianus” sweetly, yet brilliantly. The well-rehearsed choral forces also deserve applause, including the Cathedral Choral Society, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the Washington Chorus, the Master Chorale of Washington and the obviously hardworking youngsters in the Children’s Chorus of Washington.

****

WHO: National Symphony Orchestra

WHAT: Mahler’s 8th Symphony

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

WHEN: Tonight at 8 p.m. (sold out) TICKETS: $20 to $83.

PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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