Rehearsing Mahler 8

457px-Gustav-Mahler-KohutI began rehearsing the Mahler 8th Symphony this past week, with both groups, Chorale and CMAC. Beastly big! Our performance isn’t until April 19th---and I’m glad; we need time to digest and understand it.

Physically/vocally it is very challenging: Mahler composed for two equal choirs, each choir often divided into eight or ten parts; the tessitura in each voice is quite challenging; and the dynamic requirements are enormous---the orchestra is very large, with lots of winds, especially brass, competing with the singers, necessitating a very full sound from the chorus, top to bottom. But, as well, there are many lyrical, pianissimo sections, often in the difficult upper range---and these sections occur as often as not after a forceful, fortissimo passage, leaving the singers no good chance to return to piano mode. Music in this Germanic, dense, post-Romantic idiom requires very clean pitch in all voices if Mahler’s exquisite, expressive harmonic movement is to come across with any clarity---but that clarity is exactly the thing singers lose, when they are operating at top volume: less fortunate singers tend to push, distort, and lose pitch identity, even if they hear things accurately; and even the healthiest, best-trained singers, under this sort of pressure, can lose control of good choral technique, allowing their individual, idiosyncratic sounds to over-express themselves, thereby losing the pitch and rhythmic accuracy so integral to good choral singing. A work of this magnitude is a draining, constantly challenging physical workout, requiring healthy vocalism, lots of preparation, and an iron will to accomplish the composer’s intentions.

But good instruments, well-used, are just the beginning. The work is aurally quite challenging, as well. Mahler composes in a basically tonal idiom, but he is often four or five removes from a tonal center, and modulates constantly. Singers, to follow him, must have very good ears, as well as analytical, pattern-perceiving minds, and a great deal of courage. We are fortunate that good recordings are easily available---repeated listening invites these patterns, and the overall structure, to express themselves and settle in. And we need enough rehearsal time to allow lots and lots of repetition, so that the singers can become vocally and aurally comfortable with the work.

Mahler presents just the sort of challenges that Chorale and CMAC singers enjoy. They tend to be highly intelligent and analytical, with excellent ears and pattern-perception. Most are gifted linguistically and mathematically, and are highly educated; they are confident in their own abilities, and they tend not to be intimidated by big challenges. They expect to work hard, and they have the imagination, as well as the ears, to see and hear past early, difficult rehearsals. Last week was really exciting. I know that many are working hard on their own, and I am excited to hear where we are this next week.