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Symphony's Supersized Epic

With 437 musicians on stage, Houston Symphony mounts supersized epic to end centennial season

Christoph Eschenbach
Conductor Christoph Eschenbach plus some 437 musicians will perform Mahler's Symphony No. 8 to close the Houston Symphony's centennial season. Photo by Eric Brissaud
Mahler 8 stage extensions
The stage had to be extended an estimated 1,200 square feet to accommodate the augmented musical forces. Photo by Sara Alvarado
Mahler 8 stage extensions
The budget for the production is more than twice as much as standard concert weeks. Photo by Sara Alvarado
Mahler 8 stage extensions
Additional rows of choral risers were installed. Photo by Sara Alvarado

For being Gustav Mahler's most transcendentally monumental musical epic, the account of how his Symphony No. 8 came to life is somewhat minimalist.

The Austrian composer was notorious for laboriously revising his oeuvres over and over again, movements that belonged to one score at times finding themselves being replaced completely or flourishing into a different sound world all together. But not in the Symphony No. 8. It was as if the notes were being dictated directly from a divinely creative force, a process in which Mahler was simply a stenographer — metaphorically speaking.

The size of the stage had to be extended an estimated 1,200 square feet to accommodate the band. The bump-out covers three rows of orchestra seats and renders a fourth row unusable.

The Houston Symphony chose this millennial redemptive adventure — one which travels from the joyous text of a Gregorian chant to celestial absolution as represented by salvation in the final moments of Goethe's Faust — to mark the finale of its centennial season. With former music director, the beloved Christoph Eschenbach, on the podium plus some 437 musicians, the performance run set for Friday and Saturday at Jones Hall will be the second in the ensemble's 100-year history. Eschenbach conducted the Houston debut 20 years ago.

This magnum opus was sketched in a relatively short period of time, with very few edits. That Mahler reached the zenith of his artistry during one fruitful summer and without the type of painstaking emendations that plagued his métier compels one to consider: Did Mahler reach perfection?

But whereas the birth of this work, nicknamed Symphony of a Thousand, flowed freely, what it takes to mount such a colossal production — one that calls for an extended orchestra, multiple choirs and eight soloists — is the opposite of minimalism. It doesn't take a village; it takes a megalopolis.

That's the reason why the work is reserved for special occasions.

Community connections

"As such a rarely performed work, Mahler's Symphony No. 8 presents an opportunity to engage a lot of community groups — on the stage and off the stage," Steve Wenig, Houston Symphony director of community partnerships, tells CultureMap. "We strive to find intersections between the Houston Symphony and our partners so that we can be relevant with other communities."

Wenig compares the outcome of community partnerships with the adage, "If you want to go fast, do it yourself. If you want to go far, do it with others." The approach allows the Houston Symphony to connect more deeply and with more people.

 "For many, hearing the piece performed live is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can't miss this event."

In an effort to broaden the reach of the symphony's activities, Wenig and his team worked with the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston and Congregation Beth Yeshurun to host talks and discussions that explored Mahler's conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, whether the transition was genuinely in his heart of whether it was out of convenience as he ascended to the conducting post at the Vienna State Opera during a time when anti-Semitism ran rampant.

In collaboration with the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, several musicology and music history students were recruited to lead lectures around town, including at Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College and Lone Star College, as an opportunity for emerging academics to practice their presentation skills.

Alongside the film department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the symphony presented a free screening of Mahler on the Couch, a story that muses on the relationship between Mahler and his wife, Alma, and Mahler's therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud.

Wenig credits the success of other adventurous programming — such as the semi-staged performance of Alban Berg's Wozzeck and the multimedia series The Planets-An HD Odyssey and The Earth – An HD Odyssey that paired images and footage provided by NASA to music by Gustav Holst, John Adams and Richard Strauss — to these kind of symbiotic alliances.

"I believe that many of the same qualities — like collaboration, partnerships and innovation — that have helped make this city so great are also part of the DNA of how the Houston Symphony operates," Wenig adds. "For Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, we can't pull off something like this without collaborating and partnering with other groups in our community."

Teamwork makes it happen

Beethoven was the first to incorporate choral textures in his symphonies, followed by Mendelssohn. But it was Mahler who first melded both musical elements intrinsically.

To summon the necessary vocal might to execute the 90-minute work, the Houston Symphony Chorus, directed by Charles Hausmann, has been fortified with singers from Prairie View A&M University, Clear Creek High School, Clear Lake High School, the Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas and the Houston Boychoir. Soloists include sopranos Erin Wall, Twyla Robinson and Marisol Montalvo, mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Jill Grove, tenor John Pickle, baritone Markus Werba and bass John Relyea. 

Among the many logistical matters was the issue of the size of the stage, which had to be extended an estimated 1,200 square feet to accommodate the augmented band. The bump-out that was engineered covers three rows of orchestra seats and renders a fourth row unusable. Steven Brosvik, general manager and chief operations officer, says that it was roughly 13 months ago when preparations for this concert began, which included building 12 rows of risers for the chorus.

The budget for the production is more than twice as much as standard concert weeks, Brosvik explains. Additional fundraising enabled the Houston Symphony to keep admission fees at competitive prices.

"Eschenbach, who's a Mahler specialist, has unique chemistry with the Houston Symphony," Brosvik adds. "For many, hearing the piece performed live is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can't miss this event."

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The Houston Symphony presents "Symphony of A Thousand" on Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at Jones Hall. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-7575. Watch the video above in which Houston Symphony officials and local experts talk about the essence of the work.

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