Seattle Symphony's Gerard Schwarz brings magical balance to Mahler's grand, unwieldy "Symphony of a Thousand."

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Concert review |

This week’s performances of the biggest symphony Mahler ever wrote are being “dedicated to the many thousands of people who contributed to both the creation of Benaroya Hall and its monumental impact on our great city,” according to the program. Thursday’s subscription season opener was, in those terms, a triumph.

Never, in my few live experiences of this gigantic work, have all its multifarious textural strands emerged with such clarity and impact. It was hard to know which to admire more: Mahler’s skill in creating an edifice of sound at once massive and lucid, or music director Gerard Schwarz’s in realizing both the massiveness and the lucidity. But either way, the result was a ringing endorsement of the hall’s acoustic excellence.

Schwarz has recently been bringing Mahler’s bigger symphonies before the public at the rate of one a season — since 2006, the Third, the Seventh and the Sixth. The vividness of the composer’s inspiration has benefitted, on each occasion, from the conductor’s equally vivid sympathy for the expressive fervor of the music and his ability to shape its often wildly varied elements into a coherent whole.

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The Eighth — known as the “Symphony of a Thousand” — poses a different structural problem. Its two movements are settings respectively of the ninth-century Latin hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus” and the final scene of Goethe’s “Faust.” Mahler succeeded brilliantly in unifying his treatment of these two vastly different texts, but at the cost of variety. The seven-note figure that dominates the hourlong second movement is exploited far more repetitively than its potential justifies. And the method by which Mahler stretches relatively few motifs over his vast canvas is not development so much as permutation: the first movement’s obsessive juggling with a handful of melodic ideas, in particular, reveals where Schoenberg’s ultimately mechanistic 12-tone serial technique had its origins.

The sounds that filled the ear on Thursday showcased superb orchestral work, a wealth of choral power and delicacy from the Seattle Symphony Chorale, the Seattle Pro Musica and the Northwest Boychoir, finely integrated solos from sopranos Lauren Flanigan, Jane Eaglen and Jane Giering-De Haan, altos Nancy Maultsby and Jane Gilbert, tenor Vinson Cole, bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd and bass Harold Wilson, all underpinned by Joseph Adam’s strong yet never obtrusive contribution at the organ. Schwarz kept everything under seemingly effortless control. But perhaps his greatest achievement was to bring the usually overwhelming first movement and the intermittently tedious second into an unusually effective, and often magically atmospheric, balance.

Bernard Jacobson:

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