The reactor image sprang vividly back to my mind last night, when I heard the TSO, with sundry choirs and soloists, perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 – the “Symphony of a Thousand.” From the first downbeat, the TSO’s performance exceeded critical mass, and was at times in danger of a complete meltdown.
For the choirs (the Toronto Mendelssohn, the Amadeus, the Elmer Iselers and the Toronto Children’s Chorus) the performance turned into a giant screamfest. And when eight brass players up in the balcony stood up to add to the din, they could hardly be heard (from where I was sitting). There was simply too much sound in the hall already.
Fortunately, things cooled down substantially in Part II. Here, Mahler displays some strategic restraint in his deployment of instrumental forces. Oundjian picked up on the distinctions between foreground and background written into the score, to show off various sections to good effect.
It also became possible to distinguish one vocal soloist from another. And the seven Canadian soloists at the front of the stage – and one more up in the organ loft – all had their moments to shine. (They were sopranos Erin Wall, Twyla Robinson and Andriana Chuchman, altos Susan Platts and Anita Krause, tenor John Mac Master, baritone Tyler Duncan and bass Robert Pomakov.)
It’s tempting, from a critical perspective, to view a performance such as this as a kind of singing competition, and say, “She was the best, he was second-best, she was third-best,” and so on. But what mattered more was how the singers’ individual efforts contributed to the work as a whole. I’m happy to say that there wasn’t a weak link in the chain: all soloists distinguished themselves with skillful, stylish and dramatic performances.
As you may have guessed by now, gentle reader, Mahler’s Eighth isn’t exactly my favourite piece of music. I’m well aware that some people find the overwhelming force of the piece quite thrilling. But I’ve never felt there was any good musical reason to bring so many performers together at once.
The TSO’s performance did nothing to change my view: nothing exceeds like excess.
© Colin Eatock 2012