To condense the rehearsals for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (hereinafter “M8”): Our next rehearsal was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—the opera house—where we took up about one-third of the seats. It was our first rehearsal with Gustavo “The Dude” Dudamel. Everyone calls him Gustavo. Everyone. The backdrop was the set for “Simon Boccanegra,” which was the next opera production coming up. It’s a huge, pseudo-Roman set on a raked stage and is impressive on a scale that made it perfect for the Symphony of a Thousand. Gustavo is an incredibly physical conductor. When he was instructing the sopranos how to sing the word “amorem” (love) he said, “You should embrace the audience, and make them want to embrace you.” To demonstrate, he embraced the standing microphone next to him. He also said that he had had a rehearsal of Mahler’s Ninth in the morning, conducted a performance of the Sixth in the afternoon (Joe and I were present for that), and now was here conducting a rehearsal for the Eighth. “My brain is all right, but my arms are very tired.” After a pause: “Well, my brain is tired, too.”
The next rehearsal was in Disney Hall, where (leitmotiv alert) we took up about half the seats. It was also the first time we met our soloists. They are excellent, especially the mezzo-sopranos, plural. There are eight soloists. The first time we let loose with the opening “Veni, creator spiritus” we actually rocked the two soprano soloists backward. Very satisfying. I have to tell you, 400 tenors and basses letting loose is an impressive thing. It feels like riding a tsunami. For those of you who haven’t ridden a tsunami, close your eyes and let yourself fall off a roof. It feels like that.
From this point on all our rehearsals were on stage at the Shriner’s Auditorium (hereinafter the “Shrine”). This is a cavernous, mouldering hall, and pretty much the only indoor venue that could accommodate the forces needed. Even then the stage had to be extended. Look here for a schematic, and here for an article about it. It was also the first time we worked with the orchestra. All 200+ of them, including an organ, an offstage (actually in a box) brass ensemble and four harps, two of whom were from the LA Phil, and two of whom were teenagers from the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. And of course, Gustavo. And a soloist we hadn’t met: She sang the Mater Gloriosa (Glorious Mother, i.e., the Virgin Mary) from another box across the stage from the brass ensemble, where it says “Original Opera Box.” She was in a spotlight and had a truly heavenly voice. Click here for the full review.
We went into full court press mode on Friday, February 3. We had a rehearsal that Friday in the morning, then the dress on Saturday morning, then the performance on Saturday evening. (And I then had to be up at 5:30 Sunday morning for a rehearsal and two services at All Saints.) Some pictures of the backstage area are at right. It’s amazing how smoothly everything went at the performance. Kathie Freeman, Grant Gershon’s assistant (see two previous blogs) did a massive Excel seating chart, and a list of seating, andtaped the line-up order to the floor of the Expo Hall at the Shrine. We nominated her for canonization.
How to describe the actual performance? How would you respond to someone asking you what a transcendental emotional and spiritual experience was like? “It was swell.” This was swell. Also neat and keen. I’ve decided that the M8 isn’t so much a symphony in two movements, but rather a sacred opera. The first act is a prayer to the creative spirit, “Veni creator spiritus,” a 9thCentury prayer. The
result of the assimilation of the creative spirit is Act Two, the last scene of Goethe’s “Faust,” set so heart-stoppingly that those who claim Mahler was a mystic (minus the meditation and levitation) are probably right. For anyone who claims that he was fixated on death, I strongly recommend a glass of wine, a quiet room, a comfortable chair and a good recording of the M8. Find a recording, if one exists, made with the full complement. The performance that Gustavo, the LA Phil and the Bolivars are preparing for February 18 in Caracas will be a DVD and a CD, and it will be performed with 1,600+ people, as opposed to the puny 1,000+ here in LA.
There isn’t a good way to describe the experience. For singers, the voice, when supported by that many other voices and that huge an orchestra, just soars through the piece. And it’s a difficult piece, with sustained high Bs and Cs for the sopranos. It makes Beethoven’s Ninth seem like a walk in the park, vocally speaking. It was like being carried away by sound so massive, it became as physical as a brick wall, but lovelier. Try to listen to the Caracas recording. Really.
This blog is long already, so I’ll stop. My next blog will be on writing, and we can hardly wait. If enough people want to know more about the M8 performance, my arm can be twisted. Until next time, stay healthy and do what feeds your soul. You’ll never have a more nutritious meal.
P.S. Look in the lower left-hand corner of this picture.