By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
James Conlon did not turn around for a full minute to face the cheering, sold-out Music Hall crowd at the conclusion of Mahler's massive Symphony No. 8, "Symphony of a Thousand," on Saturday. But when he finally did, the roar was deafening.
Mahler's Eighth was a monumental, thrilling conclusion to Conlon's 25th anniversary season as music director, a season of blockbuster choral literature, major stars and superb singing by the 140-voice, all-volunteer May Festival Chorus.
The spectacle alone on Saturday was astounding: 417 musicians and choristers, including an expanded Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, were crammed onto Music Hall's stage, with seven soloists stationed on a platform between them. Cincinnati Children's Choir and Cincinnati Boychoir were in the balcony, and a brass choir was in the gallery, ready to blaze away.
The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music Chamber Choir and Chorale augmented the May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco.
Mahler's Eighth, a hymn to the 20th century, is a last gasp of the excesses of late romanticism. Its sprawling, 80-minute canvas includes triumphant marches, choral outbursts, heaven-storming calls in trumpets and trombones and grandiose thoughts of mankind's quest for meaning.
Mahler divided his choral symphony into two parts. The first is an ecstatic hymn based on Veni Creator Spiritus. The second encompasses the finale scene from Goethe's Faust.
Its epic proportions present staggering challenges to the performers. But Conlon's view was stunning in its scope, a fervent journey that combined both the operatic drama and enthralling mystery of Mahler's music.
The sheer sonic power of the opening Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit) was spine- tingling. Part I evolved as one great arc, with a last, frenzied buildup on Gloria Patri Domino that resulted in premature applause from the crowd of 3,313.
The chorus performed vigorously, and the orchestra created a vast universe of sound. Considerable operatic flair came from the soloists: sopranos Bridgett Hooks and Christine Brewer; mezzo-sopranos Nancy Maultsby and Jill Grove; tenor Gary Lakes; baritone Donnie Ray Albert and bass-baritone John Cheek. Hooks shone in this first part, soaring over the ensemble.
Part II's opening was a shimmering, atmospheric orchestral canvas. Conlon cultivated rich, dark sound in the strings, and orchestral soloists performed admirably.
The significant voices of the soloists made this half breathtaking. There was the fervor and passion of Albert, a spectacular Pater Ecstaticus, and the wonderful expressiveness of Cheek as Pater Profundus. Lakes' superb intonation and communicative style was a joy, despite the difficult ranges he traveled as Doctor Marianus.
The women were equally superb, from the stunning soprano Brewer, who soared through orchestral textures magnificently as Gretchen, to the two extraordinary mezzos. From her perch at the highest point in the gallery, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy projected her pure, silvery voice as Mater Gloriosa.
The chorus sang with distinction, entering with a whisper on "Waldung, sie schwankt heran" (Forest sways), and the children's choruses contributed angelic purity. The chorus' concluding Alles Vergangliche (All things transitory) was incandescent, beginning softly and building with hypnotic power to an earth-shattering climax, with Music Hall's organ at full throttle and all forces blazing.
Six little flower girls trooped out and the season ended has it has since 1873 - with the entire cast and audience singing the "Hallelujah Chorus."
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