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Redemption and Farewell for Christoph Eschenbach

Verizon Hall
04/30/2008 -  and May 1, 2, 3
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.8
Christine Brewer (soprano), Michaela Kaune (soprano), Marisol Montalvo (soprano), Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), Franco Pomponi (baritone) and James Morris(bass)
The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, Westminster Symphonic Choir, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and American Boychoir
Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Leopold Stokowski introduced Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) to the United States in a concert at the Academy of Music in 1916. That celebrated performance featured 950 choristers along with the orchestra and eight soloists. Christoph Eschenbach is capping his Mahler cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra – and his tenure as music director – with performances of Mahler’s massive symphony in a series of concerts at the Kimmel Center and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The composer described the finale to this gargantuan score as “the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” That was the effect Eschenbach and almost 500 musicians and singers achieved when the climax of this epic symphony engulfed Verizon Hall with wave after wave of sound. The music had not even died away before the audience erupted into a huge ovation for the conductor, soloists, choirs and orchestra.

Mahler lifted symphonic music into another dimension when he wrote the “Symphony of a Thousand.” This symphony for voices and instruments embraces a grandiose Latin hymn celebrating the Creator Spirit and the final scene from the second part of Goethe's Faust. This triumphant score has none of the despair and anxiety that course through most of Mahler's symphonies. The Eighth is a joyous paean to faith and love and an ecstatic affirmation of life after death.

Eschenbach's four-season survey of Mahler's symphonies has proved uneven as his sometimes wayward baton lost control of the musical momentum. He launched the orchestra’s first Mahler cycle in 2004 with a ponderously paced and uneven performance of the Symphony No. 3. From the titanic opening measures of the Eighth, Eschenbach was in total command of Mahler's score. Sweeping the music along at a vibrant pace, he shaped a compelling interpretation and drew disciplined playing from the orchestra.

Joining the orchestra in Wednesday evening's performance - the Philadelphia Orchestra's first since 1977 when James Levine led the symphony at the outdoor Mann Center for the Performing Arts - were an outstanding group of vocal soloists and four choral ensembles: the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, Westminster Symphony Choir, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the American Boychoir. The combined choirs poured out quite a sound. So did the 8 soloists. Christine Brewer's keen soprano rode the combined chorus and orchestra with radiant purity and matchless power. Her voice leaped onto the numerous high Cs and sustained them effortlessly. Stephanie Blythe's deep, dark mezzo-soprano cut through the ensemble with tremendous impact. Bass James Morris sang impressively. So did soprano Michaela Kaune, mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and baritone Franco Pomponi. Marisol Montalvo's lovely soprano added a radiant benediction to the performance as the Mater gloriosa welcomed Faust into paradise.

Eschenbach leaves his post as music director at the end of the current season after five years, the shortest – and most troubled - tenure since Stokowski became music director a century ago. This performance will rank as one of his finest achievements. Wednesday’s concert was recorded for future release on the Ondine label. If issued, it should prove an exciting document of Eschenbach’s best work with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Robert Baxter



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