An Illinois community orchestra dares to tackle Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”

April 14, 2010

Jay Friedman conducts the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest in Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" Monday night at Orchestra Hall.

Even among Gustav Mahler’s lengthy, tortuously complex works, there is nothing quite like his Symphony No. 8.

Scored for Brobdingnagian forces—which inspired the “Symphony of a Thousand” nickname—the vast work is infrequently performed, even by the world’s leading orchestras, due to its expense and difficulties, both musical and logistical. In addition to its hundred-plus orchestra members, Mahler’s 80-minute symphony calls for two massive mixed choirs and boys choir as well as eight vocal soloists.

“The work is so unique in terms of content and form that it is impossible to speak of it, even in a letter,” wrote the composer to conductor Willem Mengelberg. “It seems as if the entire universe begins to sound and ring; it is not just human voices singing, but the planets spinning.”

Enter the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. The ambitious community orchestra will—incredibly—tackle Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony Monday night at Orchestra Hall, conducted by Jay Friedman.

“I think this is his greatest work,” says Friedman. “I really do. Not because of the size. That’s not what makes it great. But there are more ravishing passages in the Eighth than in any other Mahler work.”

Best known in his role as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal trombonist for the past 46 years, Friedman is also a gifted conductor. As music director of the suburban community ensemble just west of Chicago, Friedman has led performances of other Mahler works, including the Resurrection Symphony, but the Eighth is another matter entirely.

“It really came down to whether we could get all the choral forces,” said Friedman. “I knew the orchestra could do it and I knew I could get the [extra] players. But we got all the singers and the right soloists and everything kind of fell into place.”

“It’s an amazing thing for a community orchestra to be doing this,” added Charles Pikler, principal viola of the CSO and the Oak Park-River Forest Orchestra’s concertmaster. “I hope we can pull it off, and I think we will.”

The 80-member Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest will be expanded to 129 players for this single performance. While the chorus will not approach the vast scale of some performances, Friedman has fielded a respectable 250-member ensemble drawing from four separate choruses.

“The nucleus comes from our own symphony chorus,” said Friedman. Other ensembles will include Concordia University’s Choir, the Chicago Concert Chorale, and Chicago Men’s A Cappella, with the Oak Park-River Forest Children’s Choir.

Friedman is especially happy with his eight soloists, which include some of the area’s top singers: Nancy Pifer, Marcy Stonikas, Elizabeth Norman, Deborah Guscott, Tracy Watson, Kurt Hansen, Douglas Anderson, and Peter Van De Graaf. “I have to say that I got every soloist I wanted for this,” says Friedman. “Everyone I asked said they would do it.”

Jay Friedman rehearses the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest at Concordia University.

At an early evening orchestra rehearsal at Concordia University in River Forest, there was barely room to move with over a hundred musicians crammed into the tight rehearsal hall. Friedman patiently led the orchestra through sections of the vast score, stopping frequently to address early or late entrances, balances and tuning. With many of the players part-time freelancers with day jobs, musicians continued to stream in during the rehearsal.

Sir Mark Elder, in town to guest conduct the CSO, sat in on the rehearsals, and accepted Friedman’s invitation to rehearse some sections. The English conductor encouraged the players with his personal charm and specific suggestions, such as bowing tips, as well as his wit. After leading the orchestra through the rapid, tortuous coda of the first movement, he looked around at the players,” Very good,” Elder said. “Anyone hurt?”

Gustav Mahler

Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 was written fairly quickly by the composer’s standard. The work is built on texts from two vastly divergent sources: the first a setting of the Latin vesper hymn, Veni, creator spiritus and the second a large-scale setting of the closing section of Goethe’s Faust. Yet the unifying force is a merging of the sacred and secular, uniting Christian belief with redemption through earthly love, as reflected in Goethe’s tale. As Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma, “The essence of it is really Goethe’s idea that all love is generative, creative, and that there is a physical and spiritual generation which is the emanation of this Eros.”

Unlike many of Mahler’s works, the first performance of the Eighth, September 12, 1910 in Munich, was an instant success, one of the few the composer enjoyed in his lifetime, and the last premiere he would conduct of his own music.

Though Mahler privately disparaged his manager’s coining of the term “Symphony of a Thousand” as “Barnum and Bailey methods,” the huge forces approximated that total at the Munich premiere, with an orchestra of 171 players and a chorus of around 850.

David Leehey, president of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, first became enamored with Mahler’s Eighth when performing it as a chorus member at the Tanglewood Festival. “Jay and I have been talking about doing this for a long time,” he said. “We’ve been doing Mahler symphonies in installments over the last five years.” Mounting a performance in the centennial year of the work’s premiere made sense, as did performing it downtown at Symphony Center.

Did he have a difficult time selling the daring proposal to his board. “You mean, will they kick me out after this?” Leehey asks. “They might.”

With the choruses arrayed in the risers behind the stage, that means about a 2,000-seat capacity in Orchestra Hall and Leehey is hoping to fill at least fifty percent of the house Monday night to make his expenses. “We figured that if we can get a thousand people, than we can break even.”

For a community orchestra made up largely of part-time freelance musicians, performing Mahler’s epic work offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“This is pretty exciting,” said principal horn David Barford. “We’ve played Mahler before but nothing like this and not at Orchestra Hall.”

“It’s a great opportunity to play this spectacular music,” said clarinetist Bruce Currie. “I’ve talked to other musicians around the country who are envious.”

Perhaps the musician most anticipating Monday night’s performance is horn player Jennifer Murtoff. The freelance editor and translator grew up in a small town in south central Pennsylvania, listening to classical music radio broadcasts since she had no opportunity to experience live classical music in her rural home.

“I used to listen to the Chicago Symphony on the radio,” she says. “And for me to play Mahler’s music in their hall on the same stage is just a huge honor.”

Jay Friedman conducts the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest and associated soloists and choruses in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 7:30 p.m. April 19 at Symphony Center. Former CSO president Henry Fogel will give a half-hour lecture on the work at 6:15 p.m. preceding the performance. 312-294-3000;

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