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Catching Fire

Jones Hall
05/09/2014 -  and May 10*, 2014
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Erin Wall (soprano), Twyla Robinson (soprano), Marisol Montalvo (soprano), Kelly O'Connor (mezzo-soprano), Jill Grove (mezzo-soprano), John Pickle (tenor), Markus Werba (baritone), John Relyea (bass)
Houston Symphony Chorus and Alumni, Members of the Prairie View A&M University Chorus, Members of the Clear Creek and Clear Lake High School Choirs, Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas, Houston Boychoir, Houston Symphony, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

C. Eschenbach (ę Eric Brissaud)

A "perfect" performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony is impossible. The composer's own anguished letters preceding the 1910 premiere in Munich, which he led, testify to how difficult it is for even the greatest conductor of his time to pull it off. Even some of the most renowned conductors of Mahler's music (Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan, John Barbirolli) didn't touch the piece, and his most fierce advocates in print (Theodor Adorno, Robert Simpson) lambasted its uncharacteristic, unabashed optimism. It is a gigantic, risky and exciting undertaking, one that creates box office buzz and brings Mahler devotees and lovers of musical spectacle flocking in.

Christoph Eschenbach led the Houston Symphony's first performance of the work as recently as May 1994, and the notice that he would return to close out the orchestra's centennial season with this quintessential musical hyperbole generated electricity throughout the city. Eschenbach is held in high regard as a Mahlerian, and this is the type of virtuosic, extroverted music that finds the Houston Symphony playing at its best. In terms of execution, the singers and orchestra delivered the goods: this was music making of power and clarity in the first movement, refinement and depth in the second.

With amassed multiple choirs from across the Houston metropolitan area crowding an extended Jones Hall stage, the exulted opening "Veni, creator spiritus" rang out with powerful, rhythmically perfect singing. Stentorian brass and soaring string responses swirled above the resonant organ pedals, building momentum into the first movement's contrapuntal intricacies. Eschenbach's firm command of the piece was evident from the outset, his tempo brisk but not hectic and his handling of transitions smooth and convincing. The entry of the vocal soloists brought glorious singing helmed by Erin Wall, who performed with staggering beauty of tone, power and endurance throughout the work. Kelly O'Connor's rich mezzo-soprano was equally impressive, and Marisol Montalvo and Jill Grove joined to create a beguiling quartet.

The thrust of the first movement was arresting, but its teleology was never fulfilled. A mishap on the podium near the end of the movement caused the enormous buildup of energy to become unhinged, the choir lost its way, and the movement ending with an awkward, abrupt cadence from the instrumentalists alone. A slip of this magnitude is rare; the previous night's performance reportedly had no such flaw. It is a testament to the enormous talents and professionalism of all the musicians on stage that they could regroup and maintain composure for a riveting second movement.

Mahler's Faust setting, a fused slow movement, scherzo and finale, challenges the performers to sustain and synthesize a dizzying array of musical and dramatic rhetoric. Determination and focus were evident throughout, the male soloists singing with almost mystical power, the female soloists in turn singing tenderly but with confidence. Markus Werba sang Pater ecstaticus' anguished lines with appropriate steely tone. John Relyea's rich bass didn't project as well as the other men, but his pitch and tone were attractive. John Pickle had the appropriate power for Doctor Marianus, but his German diction was not convincing.

Nearing the end of the symphony, soloists, chorus and orchestra combined to create the perfect representation of redemption through a higher love, the binding theme of the two seemingly disparate movements. The ending "Chorus mysticus" was transcendent, and here the steady build from hushed, perfectly blended singing to Mahler's most triumphant H÷hepunkt was perfectly guided by Eschenbach.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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