Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons experienced his first helming of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and hundreds of other performers in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. It was subtitled “The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert” in homage to Bernstein’s final concert 25 years ago in the Koussevitzky Shed. Bernstein was among the young musicians who had participated in the inaugural season of the Tanglewood Music Center in 1940, a major guiding force at Tanglewood over the decades since its inception, and the first person to significantly champion Mahler’s music in this country.

Andris Nelsons at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

Despite its massive orchestra, boys' choir, opera chorus and soloists, Mahler did not endorse the name “Symphony of a Thousand” when he conducted its Munich première in 1910, just months before his death the following year. Assisting him in that effort were the young Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Bernstein first emerged as a major musical force after replacing Walter in a concert with the New York Philharmonic. The circle of musical life continues.

Mahler’s monumental two-part symphony mirrors the nearly double-sized orchestral forces, augmented especially in the woodwinds and brass, with its unifying concept of the power of love to redeem human weaknesses and inadequacies. Part I, Veni, Creator Spiritus, is based on the Latin text of a medieval Pentecostal hymn. Part II bridges the gap between that hymn and the 19th century, recreating the final scene of Goethe’s Faust. Here each singer represents a dramatic role from the text.

This immense work tests the mettle of any conductor. Not every maestro gets the opportunity to command such numerous musical troops. Nelsons demonstrated that he is more than worthy of such a task. In the ebullient opening, he showed unabashed joy, reflecting both Mahler’s wish to present the work as a “gift to the nation” of Austria, and the composer’s own newfound optimism in the limitless spiritual potential of humankind. Nelsons deftly switched to poetic lyricism as the handpicked soloists (a dream cast, every one a major talent) chimed in. Throughout the evening, Nelsons knitted together the complexities of the score into a nuanced, coherent whole with unflagging intensity and a clarity that was nothing short of miraculous.

Mahler Eight at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott
Mahler Eight at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

The singers’ roles are equally demanding: especially for the sopranos, who remain in the high tessitura much of the time; for the tenor, who is required to cut through the colossal orchestral and choral forces; and for the bass, whose extreme vocal leaps require both agility and power. The soloists dominate in Part II, where each adopts a character name from the Goethe text. They established their vocal supremacy as of their first entrances in Part I, but Part II gave them extended opportunities to shine. Soprano Erin Wall sang with sweetness and dramatic strength; her full, well-placed high notes rang out over the immense orchestral and choral forces. Well versed in Strauss and Wagner, Christine Goerke showed her operatic roots to advantage, providing tremendous power coupled with subtle lyricism. The two sopranos’ unison high Cs almost made the rafters take flight.

Similarly compelling were Mihoko Fujimura’s rich mezzo, and the floating quality of Jane Henschel’s sonorous mezzo. Both of their performances were touchingly emotional. Erin Morley’s heavenly soprano rang out beautifully from afar.

The male soloists provided a perfect balance. Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt captured the high, sustained notes, floating them over the orchestra and chorus. Despite subito-piano leaps and difficult-to-find pitches, Matthias Goerne’s opulent baritone cut through heavy strings and brass in the high range. Ain Anger’s full, lustrous bass displayed dexterity and warmth.

The work also is a strenuous effort for the orchestra. The gifted, accomplished young TMC musicians surpassed the challenge, showing impressive maturity and capability with Mahler’s fiendishly difficult orchestration; perhaps not numbering a full thousand, but I doubt anyone was counting. The youthful concertmaster and principal cellist’s solos were technically proficient, and played with great sensitivity. The spectacular horn playing would have knocked Mahler’s socks off.

The chorus gave their longtime leader, the retiring John Oliver, much to be proud of, with their immense, gorgeous sound, and their remarkable ability to sustain the difficult high notes at the end.

Mahler did not hesitate to proclaim his Eighth the pinnacle and most imposing of his symphonic works. This glorious performance by Nelsons and the magnificent ensembles at his command also inspired great joy for an audience lucky enough to witness this extraordinary event. The Koussevitzky Shed resounded with the spirit of the last seven decades, as it will, hopefully, for the next seven decades and more. Bernstein would have been proud.