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Massive Mahler with a strong pull

Large Hadron Collider ExperimentsWalt DisneyEsa-Pekka Salonen

The world did not end Wednesday morning after scientists near Geneva turned on the Large Hadron Collider, smashing protons onto protons at nearly the speed of light. At least I don't think a black hole was formed, as some feared could happen, pulverizing the Earth into quantum mechanical soup. But then again, I had been at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night, where Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler's Eighth Symphony, so it wasn't possible to be entirely sure.

The Eighth, which had its premiere in an exhibition space in Munich, Germany, in 1910, was advertised as the most momentous occasion in all music. With an orchestra of 171, a chorus 858 strong and an octet of vocal soloists, the work was dubbed by publicists the "Symphony of a Thousand." Ultimately, though, the Eighth -- which heightens mystical texts from a medieval hymn and Goethe's numinous final pages of "Faust" -- is a symphony beyond numbers and beyond science. No other sane symphonic work strives to be grander in sound, scope, ambition or exaltation of the unknown.

An obvious pièce d'occasion, the Eighth is a favored work with which to open a new concert hall, although that usually portends disaster, because the score is far too acoustically complex to be attempted in unfamiliar surroundings. It is also a favored work with which to say farewell. Salonen apparently hoped to end his Los Angeles Philharmonic tenure as music director with the Eighth in Walt Disney Concert Hall next spring but got beat to the programming punch by Lorin Maazel, who will retire from the New York Philharmonic at the same time. Salonen's Bowl goodbye became a natural alternative.

Salonen had conducted the Eighth only once before, two years ago in Scandinavia. But then no conductor gets all that much experience with this work, and there are always logistical problems. The Bowl adds its own obstacles, notably the limited rehearsal schedule (Salonen got three full rehearsals, which is a lot for the Bowl but not a lot for the Eighth) and the near impossibility of credibly amplifying the amazingly rich, varied, subtle and exuberant score.

Nobody can afford a thousand performers these days, but even by contemporary standards the forces assembled for Tuesday's production -- the Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children's Chorus -- were on the small side. Amplification was uneven. For the first part of the symphony, a fanatically fervent setting of the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus," the soloists were overmiked, the orchestra underamplified. The electronic organ didn't exactly glue listeners to their seats, as can happen with the real McCoy in a concert hall. But it was a great occasion nonetheless.

One of the world's more rational conductors, Salonen is not one to be pulled too strongly in a mystical direction. But his musically minded approach can have a profound spiritual effect nonetheless. Being so clearheaded, he doesn't give his listeners reason to argue while sweeping them along.

Tuesday, he was as much general as conductor, marshaling forces. His was a vigorous Eighth, full of drive. The end of the hymn -- with its sweeping choruses, the ecstatic soloists and the full orchestra at its most brassy and brazen -- is, to my mind, the most jubilant moment in all of Mahler and maybe all of music. Salonen, here, stepped on the accelerator, and the energy he elicited began to seem like the kind of thing those scientists near Geneva are after.

The long second part -- in which Goethe's otherworldly figures ecstatically proclaim the soul's blissful reunion with elemental forces -- was carefully limned. Suffering was overcome and euphoric heights arrived at. The eternal feminine is exalted in Goethe and even more so in Mahler (he was having wife problems), and soprano Christine Brewer and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (a lucky last-minute replacement for Brandon Jovanovich, who took ill) made the most of this fervent veneration. Another last-minute replacement for an ill singer was alto Nancy Maultsby (stepping in for Monica Groop), who was gripping.

The Bowl wasn't much used spatially. But near the end, when soprano Stacey Tappan exhorted us to raise ourselves to higher spheres, she did so from the ring that holds the lights high above the stage. The effect was thrilling.

Disney has not yet had its Eighth. No hall has fully lived until this symphony has resounded within it. Salonen is not falling off the face of the Earth once he steps down from the Philharmonic podium, and assuming the planet still exists a couple of years from now, he needs to be enticed back to put this finishing touch on Disney.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 Highland Ave., Hollywood. 8 tonight. $1 to $95. (323) 850-2000 or www.hollywoodbowl.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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