“Once upon a time, 34 years ago, a group of young singers performed in Mahler Symphony #8, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’.”
Wait! REALLY? It was 34 YEARS ago? Sigh. I’m not sure that I like how OLD this story is making me feel. Let’s try another approach.
“It was May 1978 and spring was in the air…” Ummm..…not any better if people have to use a calculator to determine how many years ago 1978 was. Let’s just tell it like it is.
Yes, it was May 1978. And, yes, if you have only heard about the 70’s, 34 years ago seems like a really long time. But for four of us performing this weekend, all it takes is one musical phrase to take us back to 1978 when we fully experienced Mahler’s 8th symphony for the first time.
“Accende! Accende lumen sensibus” are the first words that the children’s choir sings in this masterpiece, which translates “Kindle a light to our senses.” Kindle a light to our senses. What perfect words to have etched into our memories and hearts.
Mahler’s 8th symphony, appropriately nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the large numbers of musicians required to perform the piece, is a rare experience for both the performer and for the audience. Because it is performed so infrequently, a choral singer is lucky to perform it once, maybe twice in a lifetime. For me, this weekend’s performance of Mahler 8 at the Aspen Music Festival will be the fourth time I’ve had the pleasure of singing this piece. The first time, as we started this story, was 34 years ago and I was a 13-year old Concert Choir member of the Colorado Children’s Chorale.
Those of you who may have read my thoughts regarding Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana will notice a theme: being in the Colorado Children’s Chorale made the single biggest impact on my love of and knowledge about music, both of which continue to grow every day. Until I had been in the Chorale, I knew practically nothing about classical or choral music. Sure, I had heard of Beethoven, but that was mostly because of the movie Saturday Night Fever and “A Fifth of Beethoven” from the movie soundtrack. So, when we were informed that we would perform Mahler’s 8th symphony, it meant little to us, except that we would have to learn to sing in Latin and German.
I won’t go into detail with you about Gustav Mahler or the themes behind this piece or why part of it is in Latin and part is in German. There are plenty of places to find that more technical and intellectual information. (If you’re interested, click here for an analysis and the text.) What I can tell you is that singing the Mahler 8 changed my life as well as the lives of three other Chorale alumni who shared the stage with me 34 years ago and will share the stage again this weekend as members of the Colorado Symphony Chorus and Kantorei.
The music speaks volumes. It is powerful from the very beginning, with its opening text of “Veni, creator spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit). It is exquisitely beautiful – the solo by the Mater Gloriosa, while short compared to the other soloists, will melt your heart. And Mahler, I have come to firmly believe, was truly inspired by a power greater than any of us mere mortals, and it comes through in his orchestration, his blending of harmonies.
During rehearsals this week, the four of us, David Hodel ’79, Matthew Weissenbuehler ’79, Kirsten Sharer ’82 and I spoke briefly about our Mahler 8 experience so many years ago. While Kirsten only vaguely remembers performing the piece (“I was only 10!” she protested), David remembers sitting behind the French horns, which were incredibly loud in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where the first performance was held on May 21, 1978. David, the music packrat among us, recently found a Chorale Mahler music sheet in papers he had at home. “It was the only time Mr. Wolfe ever allowed us to use music,” he remembered.
My memories were more of the second performance at the University of Northern Colorado held two days later. I remember watching the chimes and humming along (in my head, of course) to the adult chorus parts. In fact, I do remember almost missing an entrance because I was so enthralled with everything else going on around me. Matthew nearly did the same thing this week because he, too, was singing along with Tour Choir. “The words and music were just automatic. I was ready to sing with the kids,” he said. “A baritone voice singing the children’s choir part would have definitely drawn unnecessary attention, so I’m glad that I contained myself!”
This Sunday, Tour Choir, along with the Colorado Symphony Chorus, Kantorei and eight soloists will perform Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” with the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Maestro Robert Spano. I truly hope that in 34 years (or less) there are at least two or three singers who will say to each other, “Hey! Do you remember when we sang the Mahler 8 for the first time in Tour Choir?” and that one of them answers, as David Hodel did, “Yes. That was when I fell in love with Mahler’s music.”
Kindle a light to our senses.
If you cannot make it to Aspen for Sunday’s performance, listen to it online at www.cpr.org. Colorado Public Radio will air the performance live on Sunday, August 19 at 4pm.