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Concert Review: Mahler’s “Symphony of A Thousand” conducted by Salonen at the Hollywood Bowl

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Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major is a gigantic undertaking. It is called the Symphony of 1000 because of the number of instruments and voices Mahler uses. On September 9th and again on the 11th the audiences of the Hollywood Bowl were treated to this mega symphonic undertaking. The Bowl stage was crammed full of the musicians of the LA Philharmonic, and two choruses, the Los Angeles Mater Chorale under the guidance of musical director Grant Gibson, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus lead by Artistic Director Anne Tomlinson. The real star of the evening was the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who was using this occasion to bid farewell the Bowl.

Mahler’s Eighth has been performed twice before at the Bowl, first in 1948 under the baton of Eugene Ormandy, and then in 1995 conducted by Eliahu Inbal. Because of the Symphony’s grand scope and the Bowl’s panoramic venue, they seem a natural fit.

The piece is a celebratory kind of work which combines two seemingly unrelated texts, a ninth-century Latin poem and the last scene of Goethe’s Faust. The poem is an early Christian expression of the power of the Holy Spirit, while Goethe is expressing a symbolic vision of the redeeming quality of love. So both are really a testament to the power of love in redeeming man, through time. I do have one complaint: the translations of both were clunky and sometimes hard to follow.

The Eighth is divided, as I said, into two distinct parts. The first is majestic and stirring. Here Mahler makes full use of his choruses, and the result is quite breathtaking. The second half is more pastoral and romantic, and utilizes eight soloists. At the Bowl we heard Christine Brewer, Elza van der Heever, Nancy Maultsby, Anthony Dean Griffey, Alan Held (who made an amusing duck) and John Relyea.

The specific reason for this grand event was the departure of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s beloved conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. He has been the tenth conductor of the Phil and is celebrating his sixteenth year as Principal Conductor. Under his leadership LA has been privileged to see the premieres of works by John Adams, Franco Donati, Anders Hillborg, and Tan Dun, as well as works composed by Salonen himself. When he leaves the Phil in April he has said he wants to devote himself to his own compositions; I wouldn’t doubt we might be hearing some of those in the future. Salonen has been a great leader, showing once again with the Mahler his great skills, and he will be sorely missed. Farewell and thanks Maestro.

The season at the Hollywood Bowl ends Sept. 28th.

About Robert Machray