Basking in Mahler No. 8 with Kent Tritle at Berkshire Choral International

Photo_of_Gustav_Mahler_by_Moritz_Nähr_017:30 pm • Saturday, July 15th 2017
Jackman L. Stewart Center at Berkshire School • Sheffield, MA

This week’s heat and humidity have definitely reminded us it is now summertime. And, if you happen to be a serious avocational singer or young chorister with music career aspirations, the Berkshire Choral International’s summer program in Sheffield (MA) may be just the place you want to be spending such hot and humid days rather than in an office or summer job.

The prize for those of us who enjoy musicking as an audience member rather than singing is some pretty awesome choral music in its full glory. And one such concert is this Saturday with a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat major led by Kent Tritle one of America’s leading choral conductors.

Called “the brightest star in New York’s choral music world” by The New York Times, Kent Tritle is Director of Cathedral Music and Organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City; Music Director of Musica Sacra, the longest continuously performing professional chorus in New York; and Music Director of the Oratorio Society of New York, the acclaimed 200-voice volunteer chorus.

The soloists for Saturday evening’s performance are:

Given that I work with young composer and conductor Iván Enrique Rodríguez who has much better insight into Gustav Mahler and this work than I, off went my e-mail asking for his thoughts. Here’s what Iván sent back in a blink of any eye…. (Thank you Iván)!

Gustav Mahler is, without a doubt, one of the most important and brilliant composers and conductors of the late romanticism. He was, as many musicologists and theorists agree, the bridge between 19th century musical tradition and the modernism of the 20th century; as the Austrian composer Alban Berg (one of his biggest admirer) would say of Mahler’s music: “vision of the hereafter.”

Now… why is Mahler’s music so special?

As a composer and conductor, and enormously passionate about Mahler’s music, I was once asked this same question on social media, to which I answered:

There are very few composers that understood the human condition the way Mahler did. The concept of living as an hourglass to death, the concept of love as a whole ever-evolving experience, the importance or constant presence of nature and its subconscious impact… I think Mahler understood and transmitted all that and more through his music. Furthermore, I believe that he represents the turning point of modern music which took many paths, like branches on a tree or subway tunnels in NYC. With Mahler being that turning point, gives today (after the experimental music exercise and scientific music approach) a concrete point of view of what an emotional and purely genius composer and conductor thought, putting the soul first, attaining wisdom or intellect out of the love for the craft and not the other way around.

Now, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major, commonly referred to as the “Symphony of a Thousand” is a piece that stands out of his whole life’s work. First, it is one of the largest-scale choral works in the classical music repertoire as it calls for two separate choruses plus a children chorus, and this is without taking in account the massive orchestral forces it requires. Additionally, it calls for eight soloists: 3 soprani, 2 altos, 1 tenor, 1 baritone, and 1 bass. The common performance of the piece has an average duration of 85 minutes. We are talking about a gargantuan symphony for massive choral forces, soloists, and orchestra. With that stated, it is important to mention that the whole work was composed in a single inspired eruption during the summer of 1906!

Departing from the conventional multi-movement structure of a symphony, Mahler writes his eighth symphony in just two parts:

  • Part I is based on the 9th century Pentecost hymn in Latin Veni Creator Spiritus (“Come, Creator Spirit”).
  • Part II is a dramatic setting of the words from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust in German.

Despite the evident disparities of the combination of both texts, the whole work is masterfully woven with common musical themes sharing a single idea: the redemption through the power of love.

In April 2016, I had the opportunity of experiencing this symphony conducted by Maestro Kent Tritle in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (NYC) with the mixed forces of the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus, Oratorio Society of New York, The Cathedral Choristers of St. John the Divine, Manhattan School of Music Women’s Chorus and the Manhattan School of Music Symphony. It was indisputably a very special concert, music was achieved! That is it was beyond an evening of wonderful performance of technique and organized sound with feeling. This was an evening in which music was made with honesty, commitment, responsibility, and selfless love that just radiated throughout the Cathedral. The orchestra, choruses, and soloists were led with musical and emotional sensitivity, such tenderness and care. It was definitely a night to remember!

Mahler’s Eighth symphony is a special work. It is a symphony, said by Henry-Louis de La Grange, that “To give expression to his cosmic vision, it was … necessary to go beyond all previously known limits and dimensions.” And compared – by Deryck Cooke – to Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 as “a defining human statement of its century.” So, if you have the opportunity to attend the Berkshire Choral International’s interpretation of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” under the baton of Maestro Kent Tritle himself, I can assure you, it will most definitely be an experience you will treasure!

Note:  If you go, you’ll want to know that there is a a free pre-concert talk at 6:15 pm given by a leading musicologist, cultural historian, or humanities scholar. The topic may be that night’s music, the composer, the text, or the cultural milieu of the day.The concert venue is air-conditioned, and there is ample parking close to the entrance. Click here for box office contact info and directions.

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