Nelsons, Tanglewood students and cast of hundreds strike sparks in Mahler Eighth
In Chinese tradition, the number 8 is considered propitious, and Saturday’s concert marking the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center had eights galore: on the 8th day of the 8th month, a music director with a shiny-new eight-year contract led a sizzling performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.
Last Monday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave first-year music director Andris Nelsons a vote of confidence by extending his contract to 2022. Five days later in the Shed at Tanglewood, there was a sense that the 400-plus musicians assembled on stage were there to celebrate not only a distinguished summer music academy but the blossoming relationship between a young maestro and an august musical institution.
Nelsons rose to the occasion with energy and an intense focus that held together the vast ensemble of mostly-young performers, consisting of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, three choirs, and eight vocal soloists.
The musicians responded with an enthusiastic and proficient rendering of this visionary symphony, which yokes together the ecstatic medieval hymn Veni, creator spiritus with a setting of the allegorical final scene of Goethe’s Faust in an effort to evoke nothing less than the transformation of the human soul by divine love.
If the TMC Orchestra didn’t always produce the seamless blend and subtle effects of a seasoned ensemble like the BSO, it provided some fine Mahlerian moments along the way, such as the mysterious opening of the symphony’s Part II, with its gentle puffs of cymbal sound.
And it would be hard to top the raw energy of the music immediately preceding that, the all-stops-out finish to Part I, which Nelsons whipped into a musical hurricane.
Amid that storm, soprano soloist Erin Wall could be heard delivering a series of lightning-bolt high C’s, the culmination of a powerful presence throughout the movement. Returning as the Magna Peccatrix (Great Sinner) in Part II, Wall committed few if any vocal sins in a more modulated, yet still dramatic, performance.
Complementing Wall’s power with warmth, soprano Christine Goerke held her own in the Part I ensembles, and her tenderly expressive rendering of the Penitent (formerly known as Gretchen) in Part II raised the evening’s spiritual sights.
Ivory-toned mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, substituting for an ill Lioba Braun, gave the ensembles a firm center and portrayed Part II’s Samaritan Woman with gentle assertion and grace.
Mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel gave a mature presence to the role of Mary of Egypt, then joined with Wall and Fujimura in an eloquent plea for divine mercy to the Penitent.
In the work’s most conspicuous male role, tenor Klaus Florian Vogt led ensembles with his mahogany tone, forward-placed yet rich, and gave distinction to Doctor Marianus, the loftiest of the mystic presences of Part II.
Another of those, the Pater Ecstaticus, is depicted in Goethe’s scene as “floating up and down,” and baritone Matthias Goerne managed to make his warm, earthy baritone seem to do just that.
In contrast, bass Ain Anger as the Pater Profundus evoked scenes of the sublime in nature with a potent, focused delivery.
In a brief but crucial appearance near the end as the benevolent Mater Gloriosa, soprano Erin Morley sang sweetly from on high, amid the acoustic “clouds” that reflected sound from the stage and stood in this night for the vault of heaven.
The indefatigable Tanglewood Festival Chorus was a near-constant presence throughout the symphony, negotiating many taxing passages, none more so than the long, ultra-pianissimo Chorus Mysticus, which demands enormous physical discipline and control just pages from the close of an exhausting work. The women of the TFC also gave everyone a lesson in diction as they portrayed dancing cherubs in Part II’s Chorus of Younger Angels.
The chorus also responded gamely to Nelson’s repeated signals (fingers to lips) for more diction, a much needed quality with such a large group in a semi-open space.
The American Boychoir, doubled by the women’s voices of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Vocal Program Chorus, together made a mature sound, well tuned and articulated, in Part I and in the role of the Blessed Children in Part II.
In the orchestra, concertmaster Hen-Shuo Steven Chang contributed affecting violin solos, and, while the winds as a group didn’t always keep Mahler’s terribly long, exposed chords in perfect tune, there were many fine solos from that section. Horns and brass put out an authentically bold Mahler sound, anchored by the rich tone of Colby Parker’s tuba.
With the ink still wet on his extended contract and rumors of imminent defection silenced for now, Maestro Nelsons seemed to relax and enjoy his “end of the beginning” in Boston and Tanglewood—which is not to say he didn’t look pretty spent when the performance was over. Young musicians are a needy bunch, and they take it out of you.
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in works of Mahler and Mendelssohn with violinist Christian Tetzlaff 8:30 p.m. Friday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.
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