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TSO conquers Mahler’s mountain of a symphony

Czech-born Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler

Archive Photos

Toronto Symphony Orchestra & soloists
Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

The arrival of Gustav Mahler's symphonies among the so-called standard repertoire is still a fact of fairly recent memory. His Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major wasn't performed in Canada till 1983, when Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra took on the piece popularly known as the Symphony of a Thousand.

Since then, the big symphony with the daunting subtitle has been recorded at least 20 times for major labels. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra played it for the Olympics Arts Festival in 2010, the same year the National Arts Centre Orchestra and l'Orchestre métropolitain gave joint performances hitched to a two-day symposium about a piece that has become one of those mountains orchestras yearn to climb.

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I didn't count the performers assembled for the TSO's latest ascent, but they covered the stage, filled the choir lofts and spilled into the upper side balconies. The eight capable solo vocalists – sopranos Erin Wall, Twyla Robinson and Andriana Chuchman; CT mezzo-sopranos Susan Platts and Anita Krause; tenor John Mac Master, baritone Tyler Duncan and bass Robert Pomakov – lined up at the front of the stage or appeared in spotlit cameo near the organ loft.

The symphony's bilingual texts – Latin in the first movement, German in the second – are full of boffo optimism about divine grace and the world beyond. The music is more ambivalent, striding off at the start, for example, in a bold march-like gait but slipping fairly soon into a more anxious mode that recurred in different ways. The TSO and four choirs had no trouble delivering the wallop of the former, and often made delicate work of the latter. What wasn't always evident was how the one mode connected with the other.

Peter Oundjian is a careful, detail-minded conductor, but I've seldom been impressed with his skills as a storyteller. On Wednesday, he was better at co-ordinating what happened next – no small task with several hundred performers – than in showing the narrative line that made it matter.

Among the soloists, Mac Master stood out for his gutsy yet nuanced performance as Doctor Marianus (in the second-part cantata based on a scene from Goethe's Faust), and Robinson put heart and a fine gloss on the role of A Penitent. Wall soared beautifully over massed choirs and orchestra in the first part (a setting of the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus), and Platts brought a delicious dark fullness to everything she sang.

My favourite moments from the choirs weren't the big bawling outbursts at the start and end of the first movement, but the times when Mahler made the many voices sing quietly. The choirs managed a wonderful hush during the final Chorus Mysticus, with a silken veil of string sound under them.

With so many musicians on stage, there's a natural tendency to overplay the climaxes, and Oundjian didn't offer much resistance. A kind of orchestral Darwinism (survival of the loudest) took over in the first movement's most forceful sections. Mahler's marking of mere fortissimo should have prompted more restraint.

The Eighth is bulkier than it is long – in fact, its two movements last about as long as a standard movie, and are much shorter than Mahler's Symphony No. 2. I doubt that Mahler, a famous stickler for focused attention, would have been pleased by the half-hour intermission taken after the first part. Maybe the bigness of this symphony is itself a distraction. It would be fun some day to hear the two-piano arrangement (revised by Alban Berg) that was made soon after the piece was written.

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