MahlerFest reaches to Heaven to bring Mahler's 8th down to Earth

Every year Mahlerfest is a unique opportunity for the people in the Rocky Mountain region to experience Mahler in truly grand fashion. This year is no exception – it is perhaps the ultimate example as Robert Olson, Artistic Director for MahlerFest takes on Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand” not only reaching up to the heavens to produce such a grand piece, but reaching out into the audience as well. Macky Auditorium was to be fitted with an additional stage just to accommodate the vast number of performers it takes to achieve this massive work. Unfortunately, due to fire codes the stage was not completed and so the strings were placed below the stage on the top of the pit. Not an ideal situation, but still the performance soared.

Gustav Mahler wrote his 8th symphony in 1906 at a time when he felt his compositional powers might be failing him. The result is perhaps his most legendary work, gaining immediate success with its premiere performance in Munich 1910. Whether you consider the symphony to be about Faust and man’s sins needing divine redemption, or if it is about heaven in all its glory, the themes, based in part on an old hymn and a dramatic poem, are as grand in scope as anything in music. To create such a grand concept musically, Mahler wrote his symphony demanding nearly a thousand performers, thus the popular appellation “Symphony of a thousand.” The first performance nearly had that many with a chorus of 500 adults and 350 children.

Colorado’s MahlerFest’s performance had an orchestra of 112 with a chorus of 169 adults and 69 children comprised of the Cherry Creek Chorale, The Larimer Chorale and the Colorado Children’s Chorale. Although the numbers were no where near the scope of the premier performance, the performers at MahlerFest had enough heart to fill the hall. The choirs and orchestra are made up of amateurs and professionals who gather every year to experience the immensity of performing Mahler. While their conductor, Robert Olson, is no novice to Mahler, starting MahlerFest 22 years ago, the feat of bringing all these musicians together for the monumental undertaking of Mahler’s 8th Symphony is nothing short of amazing.

Not only is the number of performers massive, but the symphony is performed in two sections with no intermission. The first part, Hymnus - veni, creator spiritus is 40 minutes long. The second, Final Scene from Goethe’s Faust, is 50 minutes long. Mahler’s 8th symphony is a massive piece of music no matter how you look at it, and still, it has some of the most moving melodies Mahler ever wrote.

The performance in Boulder lived up to the promise of grand nature of Mahler’s music in many ways. As a symphony written for voice, not just an orchestral piece with additional voices, the soloists and chorales gave a stunning performance. Cynthia Lawrence was a favorite soprano of Luciano Pavarotti and with good reason, the clarity, power and command she has of her voice is startling. Even in the quiet passages she was able to bring intensity and intelligibility to the music, not an easy task when being backed by such a sizable orchestra and chorus. Jon Garrison as Doctor Marianus has a golden voice, with beautiful trumpet like quality. Ashraf Sewailam, as Pater profundus gave a rich, dark quality to the music. The Colorado Children’s Chorale was undoubtedly one of the highlights, singing with crystal clarity and an angelic quality; it is difficult to imagine any choir performing this piece better. At the end of the performance, as the children were filing out of their seats in the balcony, the audience gave them additional, well deserved applause.

Mahler’s 8th Symphony is demanding on the instrumentalists as well. The Double Basses with Jarad Conner as the principal brought a force to the music necessary to achieve such a grand undertaking. Ethan M. Hecht, principal viola, only had a brief solo, but throughout the performance was focused and driven generating the same intensity for the players around him. As is typical with Mahler, the brass play a huge role, and the brass were well up to the task, particularly Kelly Drifmeyer as the principal horn player.

Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the performance was from the podium. Robert Olson didn’t achieve the clarity the first movement of this symphony needs to really re-create heaven on earth. There was little contrast and not much precision in the opening Hymnus - veni, creator spiritus. In the second half of the program there were numerous moments of real beauty, but those were lost with a continual need to beat the count to the orchestra. Whether this was a need to compensate for amateur musicians or just the style of Mr Olson, I don’t know, but it kept him from getting the full range of emotion from his ensemble. Numerous times the vocalists were practically inaudible when the orchestra should have been held in check to allow the vocals to soar. Overall it was an excellent performance, an outstanding achievement, but slightly less than perfect.

Robert Olson is no novice to Mahler’s music; this is his 22nd year with MahlerFest, started as a labor of love with just $400. He has come a long way and, if tonight’s performance is any testament as to what he can do, he has much more in store for us. Mahler’s 8th Symphony is a massive undertaking. Bringing all these forces together with only 8 days of rehearsal is phenomenal. Getting the quality of performance he did from amateur players is definitely superhuman. The standing ovation at the end of the performance testifies to the appreciation the audience felt. What Robert Olson accomplished this year deserves a great deal more from the community than just a rousing applause.

MahlerFest is a unique opportunity for the people of the Rocky Mountain region to hear Mahler performed in the grand manner it was intended. This year is particularly opportunistic as it will be 11 years before they bring back Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Don’t miss the final performance of MahlerFest this year, Sunday, May 17 at Macky Auditorium in Boulder, 3:30pm.

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