Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 8, drama before the downbeat

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

Sir Mark Elder conducts the musicians of the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic, the Halle Choirs and the CBSO Chorus as well as a starry line up of soloists this Sunday, May 2nd in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 8

Five flutes, four oboes and cor anglais, three clarinets with e-flat and bass clarinet, four bassoons and contrabassoon, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, tubular bells, celesta, piano, harmonium, organ, two harps, mandolin and strings. Off stage brass ensemble (at least four trumpets and 3 trombones). Two large mixed choirs, boy’s choir, girl’s choir. Vocal soloists- 3 sopranos, two altos, tenor, baritone and bass.

As I’ve noted many times, all of the Mahler symphonies are huge undertakings, and each is a big challenge for all of the performers. If there is a general consensus that Mahler 7 is the hardest to play and conduct, I’d think there is unanimous agreement that Mahler 8 is the most challenging to put on.

I suppose such an observation is self-evident, but it really is astounding how much more pre-concert planning and problem solving this particular work takes than almost any other piece in the repertoire.

I suppose the first question one has to confront when planning a performance of Mahler 8 is where to play it. Some orchestras decide to use their home venue, while others move to a new space. Either choice can be problematic. When the LSO did their Mahler cycle, they performed the 8th in St Paul’s  in London instead of their regular home at the Barbican. The advantages were obvious- there is plenty of space in the church for a vast audience was well as all the legions of performers, and there is something inspiring about playing such a profoundly spiritual work in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. You know this piece will look and feel right in that space. On the other hand, that space has an exceptionally reverberant acoustic, and the 8th is one of the most contrapuntally complex works in the entire repertoire. As soon as the decision was made to go there, Gergiev said his primary concern was how to make the textures work in that building. It was no  small challenge to make the performance sound as right as it felt in there.

But staying home can create other problems. One orchestra I worked with in Ohio did the piece in their home venue, a very grand converted movie palace (many American orchestras, including groups like the Oregon and St Louis symphonies play in these beautiful if problematic halls). In order to make room for all the performers they had to build a huge stage extension, bringing most of the strings into the auditorium, and had to remove the usual acoustic shell to make room for more choir risers, which meant they could only use some portable baffles to wall in the performing space. It was a great performance, but paradoxically, it was the smallest the orchestra ever sounded. With nothing over the strings, their sound floated off into oblivion, and the wind and voice sorely missed the presence of that shell.

When I covered the piece with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales a few years ago(my first gig in this country), more than half the audience seats were filled with singers- it made for a tough ticket to get and a sense of occasion, but surely such an expensive piece wants as many paying customers as possible.

Wherever you end up playing, you’ve then got to figure out how to make the most of the space you have. Some conductors put the soloists on the front of the stage next to or behind them, while others put them on a platform between the orchestra and choir. With 9 soloists instead of the usual four, sightlines are a huge problem if you have the singers on the front of the stage, and this is a piece where they need to see you. The piece is just too rhythmically intricate for everyone to listen and guess. On the other hand, if you put the singers in back they can probably see well, but they’ll be getting a face-full of French horn and may not project to the audience as easily.

Then, you have to figure out where to put the off-stage brass. It’s a pretty stunning effect at the climaxes of the work when all those extra brass join in  from the balcony, unless you’ve paid a fortune to find yourself sitting next to a trumpet in the audience. Ideally, you want to find a place where the brass can make a big noise in the auditorium without being too close to anyone in the audience. Likewise the amazing solo soprano entrance from in the hall- you need a place where she can just appear. You don’t want the audience to be aware of her sneaking in, and ideally, you don’t want anyone sitting so close that they don’t get the impact of the moment.

So, long before the first rehearsal, the conductor, orchestra manager and stage manager will have had long conversations about risers, layout and spacing. Diagrams will have been drawn and plans made for getting hundreds of choristers on and off stage.

Then you’ve got to organize your team. Mahler asks for two huge choirs and a children’s choir. While many orchestras have their own choirs, few have the numbers or the resources to field enough good singers to do justice to the piece. That means bringing in another choir, which probably means sorting out buses, hotels and meals. It also means sorting out rehearsals. Who is going to prepare the choirs? Chances are the conductor of the performance can’t make many weekly rehearsals, so it will have to be a choir master. Will it be the same person for both (all) choirs? Is the director of the guest choir happy with such an arrangement? If it is different choir masters for each choir, how can one avoid learning incompatible approaches? It’s hugely important early on in a piece like this for the conductor to make up their mind about language and pronunciation early, an issue slightly complicated by the fact that Part I is in Latin and Part II in German. Will German or Church Latin be used for “Veni Creator?” One can’t afford to be sanguine and just assume that any differences can be ironed out at the final rehearsal. When BBC NOW did the piece, the guest choir missed almost a whole rehearsal because of a huge traffic accident. If they’d been counting on that time to sort things out, disaster would have ensued.  If you’ve got the budget, it is worth hiring a language coach (or possibly 2!). If you’re singing Goethe, you should get the German right.

Once you know who will be singing in the choir, it’s on to who will be singing the solo parts. Here it gets even tougher. Seven out of 8 parts demand big voices- regardless of where they stand on stage, it’s no joke being heard over such a vast orchestra and chorus. Mahler’s not the first composer to ask for big voices- think Wagner, but I don’t think anyone before or since has asked for such intricate ensemble work from so many singers with those kinds of voices. To vastly oversimplify the problem, lighter voices tend to be more flexible than heavier ones, so it is easier for someone with a moderate sized voice to blend and tune in an ensemble setting than someone with a huge instrument, all things being equal. Beethoven 9 is also a piece generally cast with “big” voices, but it only uses a quartet and there is much less ensemble work. Still, how many times have you heard a great quartet mess up that last chord before the coda?

So, you need 7 really special singers who can project but blend, carry off a big moment as a soloist and function in an ensemble. Mahler also takes advantage of the extra numbers to create the illusion of a super-singer who never has to breathe, which means you need, for instance, two extraordinary sopranos who can also match each other’s timbre perfectly. That you may have to cast them without hearing them in person, and almost certainly without ever hearing them together makes it even more fun. How tough is this? Pretty tough, and it’s almost always a messy process. I’ve never known another piece that made so many singers “sick” (as opposed to actually sick). The pressure in this piece is huge- everyone knows it will be an event. Then a singer gets to rehearsal and realizes its beyond them (this often happens with the poor tenor, who has a ferociously tough part) or beyond one of their colleagues. Last time I covered the piece, out of 8 soloists, only 4 in the concert were there at the first rehearsal, and there were another 4 or 5 who only came to one rehearsal (or never made it past the coaching with the pianist).

Then there’s that 8th singer- Mater Gloriosa, who appears in the balcony at the most magical moment in the work . It is the softest and shortest of solos, and the most painfully exposed. It needs nerves of titanium reinforced steel, as there is no chance to warm up, no big moment to win back the public after that one entrance, and nowhere to hide. You can bet any artistic planning team tackling this piece will have a list of about 30 possible Mater Gloriosas, as you never know if your 1st, 2nd or 10th person will feel up to it. When I was last covering the piece, we’d all but given up on it (there were jokes going round about the assistant conductor having to sing it) when at the 11th hour soprano Gail Pearson appeared, almost as miraculously as Mater Gloriosa herself, and nailed it to the wall.

Speaking of the assistant conductor’s role in all this- I’ve done it a few times, and it’s quite a workout for the assistant. There are lots of balance issues to sort, some conductors may even want you to conduct a bit while they go and listen (then they must peel you off the podium when you refuse to leave). Some times you might be asked to coach the singers, although some singers won’t be coached by a mere assistant (although this is normal in the opera). I once came in for a coaching with orders to talk the soloists through a couple things before the maestro arrived. The first soprano bounded up to me and gave me a big hug and said she wasn’t expecting to see me this week. When she saw me take up my post, she then said- “Oh” (actually, it sounded more like “ewww”) “I’m afraid I thought you were ….somebody….” Ah well, I may not have been anybody then, but she’s a washed up nobody now.

The assistant might also get to conduct the offstage brass in the concert. That’s not a job I covet, although it is far less difficult than conducting the offstage band in Mahler 2 (which is about as tough as it gets). If you look at the film of Bernstein’s Vienna performance, there is an assistant flailing madly in no particular tempo next to the brass who calmly ignore him. My concern at that moment would be for Lenny, or whoever else is on the podium. If your assistant is backstage screwing up, you might never know, assuming your brass are experienced enough to ignore them. If you turn around to the balcony and see someone flapping around like a coked up baboon, just at the greatest moment ever, it can cause severe stress.

So, as big a test as it is for the performers on stage, Mahler 8 is a huge test for orchestra managers, fixers, carpenters, lighting technicians and everyone in the orchestra office, all of whom have to make ten-times more crucial decisions than they normally would for such a piece. And, no matter how well-organized it all is, there will always be some drama with a project like this. Problems will have to be solved, crises will have to be averted.

But just think for a moment of this Mahler 8, where two of the country’s best orchestras are working together. How are all those decisions being handled? Who is responsible for the string seating and who is responsible for booking soloists? Who has organized the offstage brass? Who is the contact person for the out of town choir? That two big organizations can collaborate well enough to pull this one off is pretty amazing.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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8 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 8, drama before the downbeat”

  1. Erik K

    The fact that this piece ends up being worth all that hassle speaks volumes about it.

    I’ve seen the 8th live twice, and both were marginally disappointing to me in different ways. One was the Utah Symphony and Co. with one Keith Lockhart conducting. The performance itself actually wasn’t all that bad, but the acoustics in the Mormon Tabernacle, so rich and warm for an organ and epically awesome choir, were dreadful for forces of that magnitude. It literally sounded like they had miked each member f the orchestra, ran the sound through a board that they were just randomly messing with the balances on, and filtered that sound out to the crowd. It was odd.

    The other was at the May Festival in Cincy with James Conlon conducting. All in all it was a respectable performance, but it felt like Conlon was freaked out by the fact that there was no singing at the beginning of Part 2. He sped through it like it was Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia.” Never mind that that’s quite probably the coolest 15 minutes in all of Mahler…”Paging Ecstaticus! Paging Pater Ecstaticus!” It was a drag.

    Come on Marky Mark and the Gigantic Funky Bunch.

  2. Kenneth Woods


    I think you hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head….

    Those very 15 minutes were nearly the subject of a blog post I chose not to write. They are, indeed, rad, but also the most easily messed up bit of the piece. Conlon has a vast experience in Mahler, so this doesn’t apply to him, but many conductors who aren’t Mahlerians who get to do this piece as a perk of being MD of a huge chorus or orchestra do fine the rest of the time, but completely blow it in those 15 minutes. Complex as it is, the rest of the piece is almost conductor proof, but for those 15 minutes, you’ve got to know Mahler, understand the character of a Mahlerian rubato and be able to string together those huge phrases….


  3. Peter

    Good insights Ken – this piece is truly monumental to stage. If you read accounts of the first performance, it was a Barnum and Bailey affair. I can never believe looking at the photos that there are 1000 people on the stage though.

    The opening of Part Two is quite enigmatic. By Mahler’s standards, the pace of musical development is very slow and there is a lot of repetition. The orchestral exposition is a very literal statement of what follows and is extremely drawn out. There is on obvious reason why the score suddenly slows and thins at this point; namely solo singers, chorus and audience have all been blitzed by the end of Part 1, and everyone needs a break. The music, the performers and audience need to draw breath, after an exhausting race to the line. The challenge for conductors is make that pause seem purposeful rather than just a way of filling time. And the conductors don’t get the break….although they would no doubt like one. It takes a cool head to go from the last tutti of part one to these fragile passages. Over-excitement, tiredness, and “I can’t wait to get to the big climax at the end” set in and then this passage seems just in the way; a bit of a hiatus before the real thing.

    So much of this opening section of part two relies on colour and atmosphere to make its effect. We have descended into the mysterious gorge, entering into the heart of nature where (as in Das Lied von der Erde) the landscape is alive with symbols and meaning. But this is somewhere totally different to the structured and ordered human world of the first movement. That was more collective Logos, this is personal Eros.

    I have never heard a live performance where the opening sotto voce chorus passages of Part Two have really convinced me. It is easy for things to go wrong and for a stray entry or two to occur, or as once happened, the choruses got out by half a bar for most of it and were chasing each other’s tails.

    If however, this introduction is rendered with a sense of mystery and the burgeoning of love which it represents, it becomes a neglected masterpiece of orchestral writing, unfolding with on a generous Parsifalian timescale, so that when the solo singers burst in – the feeling of release and ecstasy is palpable.


  4. Zoltan

    So the piece is “exciting” before it even begins? 😉 I was curious as to whether you ever had the chance of conducting the 8th, and it seems like you were “glued” to it at least on one occasion (how could you not?). 😉

    I saw once a curious solution to the problem with the near-impossible singing parts in Boulez’ Berlin performance. M.gloriosa came down on stage after her solo (which was up in the balcony of the organ player; also where the off-stage brass was) and sang the first long piano top C after which soprano II joins her.

    The hand-wawing of the ass.conductor[sic!] in Bernstein’s performance is indeed as funny as it is off-putting. I often wondered why it was necessary, since the brass plays just fine without him.

    The holding back Peter describes is very noticeable for me at one point: while the choirs describe the landscape the high woodwinds are holding (together with the tremolo of the first violins) that never ending E-flat, and then (finally!) the harmonic tension is released.

    Ken, if you ever have the time(!) please write about those 15 minutes.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan

    Great comment. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has noticed that bit of comedy in the Bernstein film. Poor chap- he was probably some desperate young assistant Lenny took pity on or some hack from the opera he couldn’t get rid of. Either way, brass players always know when to follow and when to look down and drop the hammer.

    I’ll remember your request- that is one of my favorite passages in all Mahler, and really, all of Part II is so original and so unique. I’d love to write more about it, but we’ll see.

    I’ve rehearsed a few bits of it and covered the piece, but haven’t conducted it in concert yet. Even the very big cheeses only get to do it a few times in their lives. I did consider locking Sir Mark in his dressing room, but I figured he would simply knock the wall down to get onstage, as anyone with a chance to conduct the piece would…


  6. Scott Seward

    Great site! Someone who speaks directly to me!

    Couldn’t agree more on you comments regarding the venue. I was at the Dudamel/LA/SBOV performance, and it was compromised by the Shrine Auditorium venue. When the first (electronic) organ entrance and then the mass choir entrance fail to really “kick up some dust” I knew the concert wasn’t going to have the impact I hoped for.

    Brass was in a balcony up and left of Dudamel, but basically angled the same as the mass orchestra, so you failed to get any of the antiphonal effect. M.gloriosa was in the right balcony, dressed in a gold lame dress that made her look like some Hollywood starlet. She sang well, but again, that placement didn;t produce the effect I hoped for.

    At the coda of the final movement, I really need to hear that high concert C from the offstage 1st trumpet pinning me to my seat – I think that 9th interval is critical – and is the final statement of an incredible piece. When that is done right – basically when it is as loud as humanly possible – the effect practically makes me crumble. Didn;t happen at this performance, partially due to where the extra brass were staged. Would have loved to have heard this in Disney Hall with a smaller group.

  7. Gregory Marsh

    I am excited to perform this symphony (my first time) next week. As a singer, I feel like my part is difficult. I can’t even imagine all the work that is going on between choirs and orchestra and everything else happening. Thanks for putting this in perspective for me.

  8. Matt Clifton

    Thanks for this really interesting post. I was at the Gergiev 8th in St Paul’s – the reverberation meant it was disastrous for all but those in the (hugely expensive) seats right in front of the performers. Never again in a cathedral!!!

    I also went to a Maazel performance at the Royal Festival Hall when a bassist collapsed from heat exhaustion near the end.

    Royal Albert Hall is the only proper London venue for this work.

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