Nothing in the symphonic world says Big quite like Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, popularly known as the “Symphony of 1,000.” It’s a special treat to be able to hear it live in these times of rampant downsizing.
But bigger is not necessarily better, as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and music director Peter Oundjian demonstrated during a last round of musical fireworks before the close of the organization’s 90th season.
There were about 500 singers and instrumentalists arrayed on and around the Roy Thomson Hall stage on Thursday night – half the forces present at the Symphony’s 1910 premiere — but the aural effect still threatened to raise the roof on Arthur Erickson’s circular concert hall.
The piece, divided into two parts, alternates between relatively serene meditations and max-volume attempts to generate goosebumps.
Oundjian kept all the forces properly marshaled as he laid out the 80-minutes of Mahler’s magnum opus. Although this is, given the challenges of preparing such wide-ranging forces, impressive, the quality of the interpretation itself left a bit to be desired.
This monument to the human soul’s eternal struggle between the profane and the divine felt primitive, hewn from solid granite with heavy tools rather than intricately sculpted from fine marble.
Missing were shading, nuance, a fine sense of balance and, most importantly, a feeling of gradual progression — the fine arc of a carefully crafted performance. The progress of the piece was choppy, with the dynamics never quite soft and frequently just plain loud.
This music was big and bold, often hair-raisingly powerful, but not really the transcendent experience suggested by the text – a larger-than-heaven reimagining of an old Christian hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost,” followed by a setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust.
The seven operatic-quality soloists — sopranos Erin Wall, Twyla Robinson and Andriana Chuchman, mezzos Susan Platts and Anita Krause, tenor Joan Mac Master, baritone Tyler Duncan and bass Robert Pomakov — started off uniformly strong.
A notable highlight was Wall, who proved herself to be one of the world’s vocal wonders as she outsang the supersized orchestra and choirs.
The weakest link was Mac Master, a last-minute substitute for an ailing Richard Margison, who faltered in the second half, barely hanging on to his increasingly hoarse voice.
The choristers – the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, the Elmer Iseler Singers, the Amadeus Choir and the Toronto Children’s Chorus – were excellent, with the youngsters singing their parts from memory.
Aldeburgh Connection co-artistic director and oftentime organist Bruce Ubukata pointed out to me at intermission that this was a special occasion for Toronto’s big choirs. It was the first time in eight years that the Mendelssohn Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers – once part of a single organization – were performing together on the same stage.
This public reconciliation made a nice metaphor for the redemption promised by this massive, communal effort.
The Toronto Symphony puts its boldest face forward one more time this week, during the free, open-air Luminato grand finale concert in David Pecaut Square on June 17 at 7 p.m. Details here.