Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”, his “gift to the nation” as he once described it – was the greatest runaway success of his life. Bombast upon bombast, kitsch upon kitsch, winds over the listener, constricting their ears with serpentine counterpoint; rendering them barely able to eke out a moment’s breath; pounding timpani, roaring choirs, vocal soloists scaling vertiginously into the stratosphere, organ bursting through the orchestral maelstrom, strings whirling away dizzyingly; this mass of sound, this aural Vesuvius seems to build to such an awesome tumult, which makes one feel as if their own internal organs were vibrating along with the evocation of the “creator spirit” that you could not imagine it going any further; no, it could not possibly get any more than this. And then the off-stage brass band suddenly emerges.

Gustavo Dudamel
© Vern Evans

The Eighth is an epic cinematic symphony, part David Lean, part Ed Wood. It is also of the most exhausting, fascinating, shocking, engrossing, well-meaning, wrong-headed miscalculations ever on the part of a great composer. Something else: perhaps like no other Mahler symphony, it thrives on its own sense of spectacle. This is a symphony meant to be seen as well as heard.

Gustavo Dudamel, no stranger to spectacle himself, luxuriated in its aesthetic supererogations last Thursday night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With so much going on in the score, Dudamel wisely let it do its own thing. From the hair-raising E flat major chord that opens the work, through its shimmering prefigurations of Das Lied von der Erde, all the way to – what else? – its ear-splitting finale, the sight of orchestra, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Pacific Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, National Children’s Chorus, and the vocal soloists under Dudamel kept one’s interest fixed, even when the heavenly length of the music itself proves too much of a good thing. 

Of course, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was center-stage here. Brass played with not only with heft, but with an acidic bite that cut through the music’s fat. Their collective sound – well-rounded, agile, lean – conveyed not just brawn, but plenty of brains, too. Then there is the diaphanousness of the Philharmonic’s corporate sound; their ability to convey even the loudest passages with the utmost of transparency, yet with no loss of color and texture.

Though the work is a vocal symphony, its text – unlike in his earlier Wunderhorn symphonies or in Das Lied von der Erde – is merely a hook upon which the composer hangs some of his most florid writing for the voice. Even in the warmed-over Parsifal mingled with Verdi that comprises the symphony’s Part II, a setting of no less than the ending of Goethe’s Faust II. Especially memorable were Morris Robinson with his imposing, rich Pater Profundis, a voice that seemed to bellow from the depth of the earth; and tenor Ryan McKinny as Pater Ecstaticus, who navigated the challenging tessitura of his role with great flexibility, as well as nobility of tone. Similar qualities marked the combined choral forces, singing at they did with excellent diction, as well as clean articulation of the composer’s contrapuntal threading.

Under Dudamel’s baton, the performance managed an unlikely and convincing balance: between Barnum-esque sideshow, displays of orchestral (and vocal) power, and chamber-like limpidity.