Mahler's Eighth Symphony a resounding triumph

Bramwell Tovey
The Vancouver Sun

By David Gordon

The symphonic spectacle packs drama in its broad brush strokes -- but there's real wonder in the details

Symphonic spectacles don't come any grander than Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony, given the first of two performances by the Vancouver Symphony Saturday night. Indeed, it's rather staggering to see the impractically huge stage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre crammed with instruments and acres of choir. But the Eighth embraces certain paradoxes: enormous forces and quiet moments; theatrical bombast and touching intimacy.

Under the direction of Bramwell Tovey, Saturday's reading had it all. The first section, a setting of the Latin hymn Veni, creator spiritus, is at least as long as many complete classical symphonies; yet its tightly concentrated music often of extraordinary contrapuntal complexity.

The second section, with texts from the conclusion of Goethe's Faust, is more extended and discursive. Vocal soloists, used as just one element of the rich textures of the first movement, become a cast of real characters, each assigned material reflective of their respective voice qualities. All were effective. Soprano Tracy Dahl, for example, was granted only a tiny cameo; Measha Brueggergosman drew the most flashy and pivotal assignment. Yet it was the wonderful Susan Platts who sang with the most impressive Mahler style and with moving depth and intensity.

Mahler employs enormous choral forces -- on this occasion the Vancouver Bach Choir, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Vancouver Bach Children's Chorus -- and makes extraordinary demands on them. Certainly the phalanx of singers rose to all the symphony's grand occasions and handled its role with aplomb.

But it would be misleading not to acknowledge the true stars of the show. Bramwell Tovey and his orchestra are now about three-quarters of the way through the complete Mahler canon. Their familiarity with Mahler's mercurial idiom pays off, and pays off handsomely. There is a consistency and a sense of pacing that is both reliable and reliably impressive. Individual instrumental soloists -- virtually all the first desk players at some point -- deliver with poetry; complicated colour mixes, often with wildly disparate instruments, are nicely balanced, clear and precise. Tovey has the necessary showmanship to make the protracted composition work, even for an audience who may not necessarily know it well. Broad brush strokes help define the symphony's obvious drama, but the real wonder is in the detail.

These rare performances, an opportunistically programmed contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, are a resounding triumph for both conductor and orchestra and a shining moment in Vancouver's musical life.