The curious acoustical hexagons and the circular house lights that hover above Jones Hall dissolved from their physical constraints to constitute a breathtaking poetic milieu, one in which each glimmer represented a celestial body — perhaps an ancestral spirit looking over you?
Though I hate to use the word magic — which implies that some sort of hocus pocus or abracadabra voodoo was responsible for this aesthetic mirage — such was the affect of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in the hands of former Houston Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach.
This concert that closed the Houston Symphony's centennial season on Friday and Saturday extrapolated what's most introspectively wondrous about the score: Mahler's lucid and undeniably accurate articulation of a dimension about which we couldn't possibly know, that a destination filled with hope exists just as the Austrian composer describes it, that divine redemption awaits humanity in a universe beyond what's visually tangible.
Mahler's characterization is as convincing as empirical scientific proof — only if executed with fervor. Because bad Mahler is a never-ending catastrophic bore.
The Symphony of a Thousand, nicknamed as such by the publicist in charge of the 1910 premiere, is a trope that refers to the expanded musical forces required for performance, including augmented wind and brass sections, organ, harmonium, piano, celesta, mandolin, two choirs, a children's chorus and eight soloists. The capital required to mount the production, in addition to the work's thrust, is the reason why this symphony is reserved for celebratory occasions.
The collective interpretation was in the genre of transformative experiences for which Mahler strived — a gift to humanity.
A bit of history
Historians estimate that the inaugural performance amassed 1,020 musicians. In 2012, the Los Angeles Philharmonic staged it with a cast of 1,010. Most performances, such as the opening concert of the BBC Proms in 2010, however, are presented with about 500 artists.
The Houston Symphony's ensemble of 437 musicians, greater in numbers than the roster of 381 for New York Philharmonic's 2009 performance with Lorin Maazel, was more than substantial. Comparing New York Phil's budget of $71 million to Houston Symphony's $30 million puts this, and the organization's commitment, in perspective.
Houston Symphony's aggregate troupe neared the maximum possible given the size of the Jones Hall stage, which had to be outfitted with a bump-out plus supplemental risers for the Houston Symphony Choir and choristers 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, the latter of which performed at the 1994 Houston premiere also with the Houston Symphony and Eschenbach.
Houston's deserving musical gift
From Eschenbach's decisive downbeat of the 90-minute, two-movement magnum opus, when a low E-flat organ pedal marshaled a victorious deluge of euphoric voices alternating with brilliant and righteous brass fanfares, the chemistry between the players evinced the kind of music making reminiscent of the maestro's last engagement with the Houston Symphony, in which the music spoke across bar lines, tempi fluctuating as demanded by emotional substance.
Organically shaped phrases propelled listeners on a transcendentally ethereal voyage that, as the setting of the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus also suggests, sketched a domain in which the audience understood what it means to "Light the light of our senses, pour love into our hearts" and to "Grant the rewards of joys, grant the gifts of graces; loosen the chains of law, draw tighter the bonds of peace."
What a performance from Erin Wall, as first soprano, who ascended high above the luxuriant textures with a timbre as richly comforting as a warm embrace. At the peak of each turn, Wall's coloristic melodies were ravishing, steering the natural rise and fall of the melody with unbridled conviction. Alongside soprano Twyla Robinson and mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Jill Grove, the women soloists rendered an unstoppable agency of Mahler's message.
Soprano Marisol Montalvo, in the offstage role of Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary), manifested herself as a tender angelic apparition as sweet as the promise of saintly forgiveness.
At the peak of each turn, Wall's coloristic melodies were ravishing, steering the natural rise and fall of the melody with unbridled conviction.
As for the men, tenor John Pickle's lyrical dominance reverberated courtesy of his clear musical vision and intensifying pacing. No note was left without explicit implication in baritone Markus Werba's and bass John Relyea's renditions.
Although quicker than the marked Poco adagio, Eschenbach's tempo of the second movement allowed the suspended themes in the solo woodwinds to ever-so-gently glide with forward motion. What begins with a prolonged instrumental interlude that's obviously a nod to Richard Wagner, the movement, titled Final Scene from Faust, tests the sensitivities of the orchestra with high tessitura writing that's vulnerable to the slightest intonation inaccuracies. Flutes, oboes and clarinets melded to achieve a heavenly blend that metaphorically searched for repose.
In the few times when pitch disagreements surfaced, the musicians adjusted with ease. Even in the most fragile of the passages, when two piccolos whisper way above the stratosphere within a supernatural aura blessed by harmonium, celesta, piano and harps, the players managed to craft the type of ambiance that inspired chills and encouraged tears.
Moments of non-synchronicity afflicted a handful of complex chapters, particularly in the first violins, some of whose heads were buried in their music stands. But as an overall journey, the collective interpretation was in the genre of transformative experiences for which Mahler strived — a gift to humanity.
Houston deserved this.