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.