Three years ago, when discussions about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 75th season began, David Zinman waited to see how serious the orchestra's management was about that anniversary. When he realized that management planned to celebrate it seriously indeed, he knew that there was only one work with which to finish the season.

"It had to be the Mahler Eighth -- nothing else would do because nothing else brings so many things together," the music director says about the piece he has dreamed of conducting all his professional life and with which he will conclude the BSO's 75th anniversary season on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in Meyerhoff Hall.

"The symphony must be the world, it must embrace everything," Mahler once said. But even the composer knew that he had created something extra-extraordinary in the Eighth. In the vision that inspired him to write it, Mahler imagined that "the whole universe began to vibrate and resound . . . not [just] human voices, but planets and suns revolving."

"Mahler wanted something colossal," Zinman says. "If Beethoven had set Schiller for his most ambitious symphony, then Mahler would outdo him by setting Goethe."

In the first movement of the symphony, Mahler sets the old medieval hymn, "Veni, creator spiritus"; in the second and final one, he sets the final scene of Goethe's "Faust," which is about how masculine forces are driven in search of the "eternal feminine."

"The piece is about nothing less than the creation of the universe and the sperm in search of the egg," Zinman says. "It's that ambitious -- and that simple."

How big is the Symphony No. 8? It acquired its nickname, the "Symphony of a Thousand," because when Mahler first presented it in 1910 he actually used an orchestra of 172 players and more than 850 singers.

Zinman is not doing anything on that scale (most performances use about 400) but the forces he will marshal will set a new BSO standard for bigness:

So big that the BSO has hired 35 extra musicians (to bring the orchestra to a total of 132); so big that Zinman is rehearsing six times with the orchestra (instead of the usual four); so big that before Zinman first rehearsed the piece with the orchestra he had already met 7 times with the various choruses the work requires (he is using upward of 300 singers, including boy choristers and nine imported soloists); so big that the more than 400 singers and musicians who will perform required the BSO to put some of the singers in boxes and to build a stage extension over the first two rows of audience seats so the huge orchestra can be accommodated.

And so big that one of the reasons the 90-minute work will be performed without intermission is that there aren't enough bathrooms backstage for everyone.

"At the end of the performance, it's right out the door [with the choristers]," says BSO operations manager Susan Anderson. "There's simply no room backstage."

If Zinman has been responsible for the artistic dimensions of this week's performances, it is Anderson who is responsible for its physical dimension. She began planning for the performance exactly a year ago. The least of her problems, she says, was building the stage extension.

"The biggest problem is how do you herd 500 people around?" she jokes. "Do you use a whistle, a megaphone or a bullhorn? Seriously, the only thing I can compare this to is putting on an outdoor concert -- that's because all the advantages of an indoor concert are taken away. I have had to look at the space in a new way and improvise a way to perform a piece of music that the hall was not designed for."

Because of their huge numbers, all the choristers -- the combined choruses of the BSO, the University of Maryland at College Park, Morgan State University and the boys' choirs of several local churches -- will gather first at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation. Immediately before the performance, they will march to Meyerhoff in separate columns along Preston and Biddle streets and enter the hall from different sides. So many singers made it necessary for Anderson to rent bleacher stands that are 10 rows high.

"Not quite as easy as it sounds," she says. "We had to make a big deal about nice wood -- we didn't want the singers getting splinters and we didn't want the bleachers to be too dingy from the audience's point of view."

From Zinman's point of view, some of the problems of directing so huge and diverse a work were apparent last Tuesday when he assembled all the choristers for their first rehearsal together. In order to get what he wanted from the adults, the BSO's music director was able to talk about the human need for love and salvation. But with the boys, most of whom were about 10 years old, he had to use a different tack.

"Just think of Mickey Mouse," he told them at one point. Then, marching in place on the podium like one of the dwarfs in "Snow White," the 55-year-old conductor began to sing, "Hi-ho, hi-ho, It's off to work we go!" Like any father who raised a son in the era of the Disney Channel, he knew they'd get the point.

"The power of this piece comes from the effect of a huge sound in a real space and it's nothing you can hear on a record," Zinman said later. "The Mahler Eighth is an ocean of sound, a tidal wave of sound that floods over you. It gets so big, it gives you an adrenalin rush. When you're conducting it, if you're not careful, you can become exhausted from the sheer excitement of it."

The symphony is just one of a number of pieces written before World War I that brought symphonic music, which had been getting ever bigger since the Beethoven Ninth, to a new critical mass. There's Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder," which requires an even bigger orchestra (172 players), Strauss' opera "Elektra," which asks for a pit orchestra of more than 120 players, and the later works of Scriabin, which not only require huge performing forces but projectors to bathe the auditorium in colors.

The Mahler Eighth is probably the greatest of these pieces and probably the most expensive to perform. Even though the BSO is giving a third performance to defray expenses, presenting the Mahler Eighth will still cost the orchestra $90,000 more than a regular subscription program. It is well worth the cost, the conductor says.

"This is a very idealistic vision of creation in a very personal and beautiful work that most of us will probably never get a chance to hear again live. There are some people who say that Mahler strived to be too gigantic in the Eighth and that it is not Mahler at his best. I can't agree with that. The Eighth is one of his greatest works and as for its gigantism . . Life, after all, is not always minuscule -- there's the Grand Canyon, too."

About the Eighth . . .

*Performances of the Mahler Eighth -- on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings -- are sold out, but WJHU-FM (88.1 MHz) will broadcast Saturday's performance live.

*The work is so huge and expensive that -- despite its popularity -- it was presented this season on only two other occasions in North America. This contrasts with the same composer's otherwise huge Symphony No. 1 (15 performances) and Symphony No. 2 (13 performances).

*The BSO has hired 35 extra musicians and will perform the work with an orchestra of 132 players.

*In addition to nine soloists, the vocal forces will include 100 singers from the BSO chorus, 100 from the University of Maryland at College Park Chorus, 70 from the Morgan State University Choir and 39 boy singers from the choirs of the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, St. David's Church and the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

*David Zinman will conduct from a podium 2 feet higher than usual so all the musicians and singers can see him.

*Zinman, the soloists, the first violinists and the violists will perform on a stage extension over the first two rows of the audience.

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