Mahler’s Massive Get-Together, Loudly Downsized by Levine

The origins of “event culture” may reside not in the grandiose scheming of some Hollywood pitchman, but in the ingenuity of one Emil Gutman, a German concert agent who filled a gigantic exhibition hall in Munich on Sept. 12, 1910, for what was billed as the world premiere of the “Symphony of a Thousand” by Gustav Mahler. For once, the hyperbole was an understatement. The actual population onstage was 1,030-a number that included 858 singers, 171 instrumentalists and the composer himself on the podium.

The performance was an overwhelming success-as triumphant as the last century’s other epochal musical premiere was scandalous (Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris three years later). Among the luminaries allegedly in attendance at the Munich extravaganza were King Albert I of Belgium and the Prince Regent of Bavaria; the statesman Clemenceau; the composers Webern and Korngold; the conductors Klemperer and Stokowski; the writers Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig; the director Max Reinhardt; and Henry Ford. The evening ended with a coup de théâtre . According to Mahler’s assistant, the conductor Bruno Walter, “When the last note … had died away and the frenzy of enthusiasm made its way to him, Mahler climbed up the steps of the raised platform to where the children’s chorus had been positioned, who met him with elation, and pressed all the hands stretched out to him as he strode past their ranks.”

Since then, the logistical challenges have made Mahler’s Eighth Symphony the least performed of his major works, but it has lost none of its drawing power. When James Levine chose it to inaugurate his tenure as the new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra a few days ago, the demand for tickets was as intense as it had been for the redemptive Red Sox World Series. Three nights later, Mr. Levine and his players brought it to Carnegie Hall, creating a box-office stampede the likes of which I haven’t seen on West 57th Street in years. As I made my way through the scalpers, I didn’t spot any royals, Nobel Prize–winning authors or automotive industrialists; nor, when it was all over, did Mr. Levine-who’s less agile than the Alpine-fit composer was-mount the platform to clasp hands with the members of the American Boychoir. But an event it was-though it was not, to my ears, an altogether happy one.

The Mahler Eighth is a great symphony, but its greatness is sui generis -there’s simply no other symphony like it. Mahler seems to have composed its roughly 90 minutes of incredibly dense, compulsively vivid music in a white-heat state that lasted eight weeks. The “whole thing,” he later told his biographer, Richard Specht, had appeared to him as in a “lightning-like vision … and I merely needed to write it down, as if it had been dictated to me.” No one had ever attempted anything like this before. It’s the first sung symphony, using the human voice (or a great many voices) as both instrumental amplification of the symphonic form and as the medium for two radically different texts-the medieval Latin hymn (“Veni, creator spiritus”) and the final scene of Goethe’s Faust , the Holy Grail of German literature, in which the weary hero, now over 100 years old and indifferent to the riotous vanity of his past, achieves a Buddhist-like salvation.

Mahler wanted Part I, the medieval hymn to creation, to be performed with tremendous energy ( Allegro impetuoso ), in keeping with the score’s feverishly compressed writing. Mr. Levine, who’d whittled the original forces down to a mere 327, more than obliged, not so much with speed as with a savage drive and an unrelieved loudness that turned this urgent plea for God’s grace into something more resembling a Deus irae . In recent years, his pared-down podium style-the result perhaps of a tremor in his left hand-has occasionally made for a metronomic rigidity that sweeps aside nuance and color and, in this case, any sense of what all those voices were singing about. When the march theme was passed among the horns and the woodwinds, I heard no wonderfully alert give-and-take, but only a generalized traffic roar. What saves this “Veni, creator” from sounding theologically archaic is the illumination of musical sensuality-sheer sonic beauty. As sharpened by Carnegie Hall’s close acoustical brilliance, the entreaty became a bludgeon, and I wanted to shout, “Turn down the volume! Enjoy!”

An unnecessary intermission robbed us of the beatific contrast that makes such an impact when Part II unfolds immediately after Part I. Harsh woodwinds and unfeeling horns-which recurred throughout the performance-marred the delicately weird nature painting of the hermits’ mountain gorges. But after that, there was much-intermittently-to enjoy. The Eighth is a feast for concertmasters, and the B.S.O. leader, Malcolm Lowe, was eloquent.

Mr. Levine, who is beloved by so many of the Metropolitan Opera’s best singers, assembled an impressive array of soloists: the sopranos Jane Eaglen and Hei-Kyung Hong, the mezzos Stephanie Blythe and Yvonne Naef, the baritone Eike Wilm Schulte, the bass John Relyea and the tenor Vinson Cole, who was a last-minute replacement for an ailing Ben Heppner. They had the misfortune to be virtually invisible, sandwiched as they were between the orchestra and the choirs, and for all one could make of their German, they might have been singing in Urdu. On this occasion, Goethe’s immortal poetry did not crackle or caress. But these were voices of commanding power-especially those of Ms. Hong, who sang with a reedy warmth that was superbly Mahlerian; Ms. Blythe, a rock of ages; and young Mr. Relyea, whose Pater profundus carried an Old Testament authority.

But for Mahler’s Eighth to sweep us away, the performers must be swept away-must seem to be not mere performers, but messengers of the composer’s mystic vision. Only near the end, when the soprano Heidi Grant Murphy stood up in one of the balconies as the Mater gloriosa and angelically sang “Come! Lift you unto loftier spheres,” did the evening become truly magical. From then on, everything under Mr. Levine’s now beautifully pacified baton came together as one-and the symphony’s “thousand” forces disappeared in a musical enactment of bliss.