Redwood Symphony takes on Mahler

The Redwood Symphony during dress rehearsal of last Saturday’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand.’

The Redwood Symphony finished its second multi-year cycle of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler last Saturday with the biggest of them all, the Eighth. This 80-minute work for huge orchestra, multiple choruses and eight solo singers was dubbed the “Symphony of a Thousand” by an early promoter who actually gathered 1,000 musicians to perform it. Redwood could only fit about 300 on the stage of the San Mateo Center for the Performing Arts, so that’s what assembled under music director Eric Kujawsky’s direction.

As he’s proved before often enough, Kujawsky is a great Mahler conductor. Even with largely non-professional musicians, he imposed control and vision on this rambling and chaotic work in a way that nobody else could, not even that famous Mahler conductor up the road in San Francisco.

The Eighth comes in two disparate parts. The first, a setting of a Catholic hymn in Latin, is largely an exercise in competing fortissimos. Chorus and orchestra each tries to outblast the other for the better part of half an hour. In this performance, the orchestra won hands down. The Masterworks Chorale in back only outnumbered it two to one, which is not enough, and even with choir mikes could hardly be heard. The extreme complexity of the vocal scoring, with often half a dozen lines singing different words at once, didn’t help. The soloists in front who tried to weigh in occasionally might as well not have been there.

What saved the performance, since the orchestra could be heard, was what Kujawsky did with it. Despite the difficulties the instrumentalists also had with this challenging score, he got them to display every ounce of color and character that could be had from Mahler’s imaginative orchestration.

The unrelated Part Two, an almost operatic setting of the quietly ecstatic final scene of Goethe’s play “Faust,” is longer but less noisy than Part One. If I timed it correctly, Kujawsky got through this in not much more than 50 minutes, a pretty fast clip. The vocalists may be heard occasionally, and there are even a few instrument-only passages to show the orchestra off too. These again were charming, delightful and excitingly vivid, suggesting at times what Shostakovich learned from Mahler. The winds and brass in particular offered some impressive work.

Occasionally, the chorus got to peek out and really be heard from behind the orchestra. It often sounded splendid, especially in the relatively straightforward chorale hymn near the end of the work. The soloists, who have all sung opera locally, many of them professionally, were mostly very good. They each had a chance to sing separately, and the trouble they had riding over the orchestra was probably due to the hall’s acoustics. The CPA is really a high school auditorium. Like most of that kind, it’s broadly built and does not focus the sound well.

That this was purely an acoustic problem was suggested by the small but vivid contribution as the Mater Gloriosa (Virgin Mary) from soprano Shawnette Sulker, who was not on stage at all but up in the balcony. From almost directly above me, her voice was clear and precise. Perhaps all the soloists should have been up in the balcony.

Of the folks on stage, tenor David Gustafson had the most success at carrying his voice. He was in full command of his role as the theologian Doctor Marianus. The other male singers were a little less secure in their parts. Of the remaining women on stage, soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai as the penitent Gretchen had the largest role and was able to do the most with it.

Despite the acoustic problems and the inherent challenges of largely non-professional forces in a long and complex score, this came out a satisfying concert. The musicians deserve full credit, but the greatest honor goes to Kujawsky for the scope of vision and imagination to put it all together.

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