April, 1991. I clearly remember the tears as the final moments of the Mystic Chorus exploded into the grand orchestral finale. Of course, I cried at every culminating concert in a series conducted by Mr. Shaw, always worried that this time would be the last. Mahler 8, however, was different. I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Here I was, seventeen years old, sitting behind the elegant Mrs. Shaw, surrounded by hundreds of voices, 200 of whom had become my family throughout the process of learning this piece. At 17, I certainly didn’t grasp the importance of Goethe’s text, or the symbolism of the returning “Veni Creator Spiritus” music. What I understood was the challenge, the triumph, the process, and the community I experienced in this undertaking. I wanted to hang on to the sound of 600 voices and over 100 players performing happy birthday for Mr. Shaw as the clock in the recording session finally inched its way past midnight into his 75th year. I wanted to recall the grueling extra hours we all spend rerecording those takes that failed the first day because the engineers hadn’t known what to expect from such a large setup on the Symphony Hall stage, and they wanted perfection. I relished the sense of accomplishment that I felt having tackling two languages in one piece, a feat made possible only because I took my score on my senior class trip to Hilton Head and spoke German on the beach everyday while the rest of my classmates were…well…who knows. I felt smug knowing how much clothing was (or was not) actually worn under the famous ASOC blue robes. I obsessed about the opening measures so vociferously, that I carefully drew them on my favorite jean shorts (ah, the 90s). And, I had undying love and affection for those who had helped me through the process, from Nola Frink to Ann Howard Jones, from Al Calabrese to Norman Mackenzie and, of course, the incomparable Mr. Shaw. My unending loyalty for this team was sealed as the offstage brass resounded throughout the hall. I had just chosen where to go for college, but I knew that no experience would ever match the journey that was my first Mahler 8.
May, 2012. 21 years later, with a miraculous second Mahler 8 under my belt, this time as one of the leaders of the process.
with JoAnn Falletta and Robert Shoup post Mahler 8 performance May 27, 2012
How is that possible? Answer: sheer great fortune, a little bit of persuasion, and the incredible enthusiasm, dedication, and fortitude of the Richmond Symphony Chorus.
Was it any easier this time around? Answer: not a bit. It’s not the hardest sing I’ve ever prepared (I reserve that honor for Missa Solemnis), but there’s something about the piece that demands total commitment of spirit, voice, and time during every single rehearsal. The twists and turns of key, rhythm, text, and expression do not function on auto-pilot, so every performance (heck, every rehearsal) brings a new Mahler 8.
Was this time really any different? Of course, this time around had its unique identifiers: the joyful and instant collaborative spirit the ensembles shared at their first rehearsal together only two weeks before the show, the long bus rides with wine and no corkscrew, the surprise post-rehearsal birthday song for me (!), the Facebook chatter (not available in 1991) after each rehearsal, and the powerful and unforgettable look on JoAnn Falletta’s face as she turned towards the audience in the final measures to conduct the off-stage brass, the result of which was the gathering of the entire audience into the triumphal conclusion.
But, just as in 1991, at the end of the final performance, I shed tears. This time, however, not because of any experience I happened to have had during the past several months of being immersed in the behemoth. And not because I might never have another chance to find myself maneuvering the complex choir 1/choir 2 relationship. But rather because of the beautiful music and the miracle of its realization. From Mahler’s daring vision of redemption to the sweat and struggles of each singer and instrumentalist on stage, from the administrative marvels who put it all together to the conductor who dared to dream that it would be possible (and quite appropriate) for a woman to spearhead such a project, Mahler’s 8th symphony transcends the 80 minutes it takes to perform. I, for one, am thankful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have such a memorable twice-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’ve had the year from “Hades.” No, not personally, don’t worry! Rather in a set of repertoire coincidences that I’m now finding hard to ignore. The year began with the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra performing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Of course, in the last movement, the composer descends into the depths of hell where he meets his day of judgment with witches, the famous “dies irae” chant, and not one but TWO tubas (not to mention the FOUR bassoons).
Soon after that, the Richmond Symphony Chorus began preparing Mendelssohn’s Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (with spirits, witches, and howling owls) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (which combines a Latin hymn of light with the final scene from Goethe’s Faust – the ultimate in devil stories).
In between, I lectured on Monteverdi’s Orfeo at American University, and was reminded that the connection between music and Hades has been around for hundreds of years. Yes – one of the first operas ever written (in 1607) centers around Orfeo’s failed trip to bring his beloved back from the underworld. It is Orfeo’s musical prowess that convinces (or cajoles) Pluto to allow him to attempt his rescue of Eurydice. Unfortunately, it’s Orfeo’s own human passion that causes him to fail in the end.
With all of these devil-related projects, I started to wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something sinister. Or, perhaps I was just missing the opportunity to make conductor/Satan associations and jokes about how hellish orchestra auditions are.
But with this weekend’s fully staged performance of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale with the Richmond Symphony and VCUTheatre, I’m choosing to take away a different message. In Stravinsky’s miniature theatre piece, Joseph the Soldier sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for promise of “riches untold.” His soul is represented by: his violin. It is music that makes him human – music that makes him whole.
Written in the economic disarray after World War I, A Soldier’s Tale seems to offer the message that no matter how hard things get – emotionally or financially – we must strive to make music survive. It is music that allowed Berlioz to voice his angst over unrequited love. It is music that gave Orfeo the power to confront the rulers of the underworld. It is music that Joseph the Soldier seems to miss most, despite the unlimited gold coins in his pocket.
So, if you’ve had a “heck” of a year, come to the symphony. The music will do you good.
PS – Years ago (2003?) I performed this on my DMA recital. Here is a .pdf download of the program notes.