Grand Rapids Symphony's historic, 1997 performance of Mahler's 'Symphony of a Thousand' remembered 20 years later

Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” doesn’t really take 1,000 people to perform, but it does take a great many.

Twenty years ago, when the Grand Rapids Symphony performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, more than 400 people were on stage.

This spring is the 20th anniversary of Grand Rapids Symphony’s first performance of Mahler’s musical “affirmation of faith.”

Catherine Comet, GRS Music Director rom 1986 to 1997, led three concerts in two cities with a supersized symphony orchestra of 122 instrumentalists and an extra-large chorus of 289 singers.

It was a big event in more ways than one.


Grand Rapids Symphony's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8
March 22-23, 1997 in DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids, broadcast by WGVU-TV

Neither the Grand Rapids Symphony nor its collaborator, the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, had ever mounted or presented a production of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

The 90-minute performance was taped and later aired in its entirety on WGVU-TV.

And a total of 419 musicians – including eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba on stage, plus another four trumpets and three trombones off-stage –  all participated in concerts held March 21-23, 1997.

The battery of keyboard instruments called for includes organ, piano and celeste plus a harmonium, a 19th century keyboard instrument meant for the parlor at home.

“I remember it was extraordinary to be on stage with an army of performers,” recalled violinist Christine Golden. “I remember our wonderful contralto, Gwenneth Bean, congratulating us as we came off stage in her folksy way, saying ‘Bravo tutti everybody!’”

The joint collaboration led to two performances in DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids and one in Hill Auditorium at U-M in Ann Arbor.

“Since I received both my undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Michigan and played many concerts as a student in Hill Auditorium, it was really special to perform there as a professional musician,” said assistant principal violist Barbara Corbató.

“East meets West” was the inspiration for the event bringing together arts organizations from the east side of the state, such as the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, and from the west side of the state, including the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys.

Eight vocal soloists, including soprano Beth Veltman and baritone Russell Christopher, both natives of Grand Rapids, all had Michigan connections in one way or another.

Violinist James Crawford, Grand Rapids Symphony’s concertmaster, remembers “being in awe of the number of people all on stage together at the same time.”

“So much so that it required Hill Auditorium build an extension to the stage out over the first rows of the audience to accommodate us,” he said.

Though Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 doesn’t demand 1,000 performers, there were, in fact, 1,029 participants on stage for its debut, conducted by Mahler himself, in 1910 in Munich, Germany.

Some 15 years later, the Grand Rapids Symphony gave its second performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, this time under David Lockington, now Music Director Laureate, as the culmination of Lockington’s 11-year effort to play the entire cycle of Mahler’s 10 complete works for symphony orchestra.

Though performances of the “Symphony of a Thousand” are few and far between, they usually are memorable.

Corbató recalls playing in a performance conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in the Hollywood Bowl in 1985 during her student days while participating in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.

During the ethereal second movement, a buzzing noise began to wash over the audience.

“Apparently a police helicopter was in hot pursuit of someone in the area,” Corbató recalled. “After a few minutes of the noise, Michael Tilson Thomas suddenly stopped conducting, looking very annoyed, then dramatically broke his baton over his knee and stormed off the stage.”

“A long intermission ensued, and we returned to the stage to begin the second movement again, finishing without helicopter accompaniment,” she said with a laugh. “Whenever I perform or listen to Mahler Eighth, I remember that performance very vividly.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 9:00 AM
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