Lorin Maazel’s Farewell as New York Philharmonic Music Director – Mahler Symphony No.8

Symphony No.8

Christine Brewer, Nancy Gustafson & Jeanine De Bique (sopranos), Mary Phillips & Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-sopranos), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), Wolfgang Schöne & Jason Grant (basses)

New York Concert Artists
The Dessoff Symphonic Choir
Brooklyn Youth Chorus

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 24 June, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliLorin Maazel is closing his seven-year tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic with performances of Mahler’s monumental Eighth Symphony on four consecutive evenings, of which this was the first. Before the concert began, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proclamation of “Maestro Lorin Maazel Day” in New York City was presented to the conductor, who in turn declared this to be “Gustav Mahler Night”.

The Avery Fisher Hall stage was extended forward to accommodate the huge forces – over 350 performers in all – assembled for this performance, with choristers completely filling the space behind the outsized orchestra. This configuration seemed to enliven and brighten the Hall’s acoustics, notably to the benefit of the strings, most of which were seated in front of the proscenium. String tremolos and pizzicatos stood out with great clarity, as did solo passages played by concertmaster Glenn Dicterow and principal violist Cynthia Phelps. The woodwinds also sounded marvellous, particularly in the Adagio that opens Part Two, the final scene from Goethe’s “Faust”. The horns and the brass and percussion sections had no trouble projecting powerfully through the auditorium, of course, but they also shone in many passages in which they were called upon to play softly.

Maazel’s choices regarding the physical deployment of the instrumental players and vocalists also proved to have a significant impact on the audience’s perception of the music. He stationed the female vocal soloists at extreme stage right (with the first violins), with the male soloists symmetrically opposite at stage left (with the double basses). This separation was occasionally disconcerting in Part One, the “Veni, creator spiritus” hymn, when both groups sang simultaneously, but less so in Part Two in which this was infrequent. It appeared, however, that there was simply no way to make enough room on the stage to allow these singers to be positioned in front of the orchestra.

The soloists all sang quite creditably, both in the hymn’s solo and ensemble passages and in their respective portrayals of the characters in the conclusion of the Faust tale. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey brought both heft and sheen to his portrayal of Doctor Marianus, and bass Wolfgang Schöne sang Pater ecstaticus – a role usually sung by a baritone – with a forceful yet warm vocal quality. Bass Jason Grant sang Pater profundus with appealing resonance, but at times his phrasing did not sustain the ample power he displayed in his initial attacks.

Christine Brewer. Photograph: Christian SteinerSoprano Christine Brewer as Magna Peccatrix was in excellent voice as she carried the top line in the beautifully sung trio with mezzo-sopranos Mary Phillips (Mulier Samaritana) and Nancy Maultsby (Maria Aegyptiaca), both of whom also offered outstanding characterisations. Nancy Gustafson portrayed Una Poenitentium (Gretchen) with a sweet soprano voice, great musicality and appropriate dignity.

Late in Part Two, soprano Jeanine De Bique, singing from a side balcony two tiers above the stage and just in front of the proscenium, gave a lovely account of the role of Mater gloriosa as she beckoned Gretchen heavenward in bright and airy tones. Her first prize in the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions is but one of many prizes and awards De Bique has already garnered, and her performance this evening, although brief, left no doubt that a fine career lies ahead of her.

Maazel positioned the offstage brass ensemble for the concluding passages of both parts of the symphony in a side balcony symmetrically across the auditorium from where Mater gloriosa appeared. These musicians were perched perhaps thirty feet directly above the double basses, and hence rather close to the main body of the orchestra. This proved less effective in the coda at the end of the hymn, when the sound of the offstage brass seemed to merge with that of the full orchestra, than in the work’s final bars, in which the separate identity of the smaller ensemble was maintained quite well – and to brilliant effect.

The choristers, who sang excellently throughout the symphony, were divided left and right into two separate choruses, as Mahler’s score specifies, with the youth chorus centrally positioned just behind the orchestra. In Part Two, various categories of angels were portrayed by two triangular groups of female choristers positioned at the far corners of the stage, an arrangement that succeeded quite well in allowing each group to be heard distinctly and in contrast with the other.

Having chosen Mahler 8 as the capstone of his tenure at the Philharmonic, Maazel gave it a highly energetic reading and drew superb playing and singing from the entire ensemble, managing with aplomb the difficult task of keeping the huge and multifaceted forces together. The Philharmonic members seemed particularly eager to give their conductor a fitting send-off, and outdid themselves throughout the evening. Maazel imbued the symphony with drama, tension, ardour and glory, making beautiful music at every step along the way.

Particularly arresting were the beginning and ending sections of Part Two. In its prelude, which depicts an eerie terrestrial landscape, each section of the orchestra, beginning with the strings and woodwinds, displayed its virtuosity and played with chilling dramatic effect. Much later, the combined choruses sang the concluding text in the “Chorus mysticus”, softly at first and then building to a powerful crescendo, culminating just as the offstage brass joined in bringing the symphony to a stirring conclusion.

Not surprisingly, given the significance of the occasion and the sheer power of the performance, the audience, choristers, soloists and members of the orchestra joined in giving Maazel a prolonged ovation.

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