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Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer has conducted his share of choral-orchestral blockbusters (including the Berlioz Requiem with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in September 2011), but he predicts this week's performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 will be "beyond everything you could imagine."
The symphony is popularly known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the legion of musical forces it requires. The upcoming concerts, presented free of charge as part of the biannual Tanner Gift of Music series, will feature a full orchestra (the Utah Symphony), eight vocal soloists, a children's choir (choristers from Salt Lake City's Madeleine Choir School) and two choirs (the 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir has enough singers to go around). In addition to the sonic impact of hundreds of musicians singing and playing at top volume, Fischer said, Mahler's Eighth contains answers to lifelong metaphysical questions from a composer staring death in the face. (The symphony was the last of Mahler's works to premiere in his lifetime; it also was uncharacteristically well-received from the beginning.)
Fischer hasn't conducted the work before; he hasn't even heard it played live. But "I feel confident because the orchestra especially the way they played Mahler 6 and 7 is very encouraging. … Objectively, they're absolutely ready."
He's confident in the choir's preparation under its music director, Mack Wilberg, as well: "I know his sense of musical ethic and his integrity." Fischer, who has his first rehearsal with the choir on Sunday, Feb. 14, said he still remembers every bar of their 2011 collaboration. "I'm not exaggerating, I could not dream of any better choir to perform this."
Wilberg, who was the Tabernacle Choir's associate conductor when the choir and Utah Symphony last performed Mahler's Eighth in 2002, said "a dozen to two dozen" of those singers are still in the choir. "So it's essentially like starting over again."
The choir started rehearsing the work last fall, partly to avoid a time crunch with other musical obligations and partly because the choral part is so complicated, Wilberg said. Because Mahler wrote for a double chorus, "it's like teaching the piece twice. It really doubles the amount of time it takes to learn and get it to a place where it's completely presentable." Wilberg said his prior experience with the piece helped him manage the logistics of the necessary sectional rehearsals efficiently.
The symphony's first movement is a Latin setting of the hymn "Veni creator spiritus," which Wilberg's singers took in stride, as they frequently sing in Latin. The second movement is a setting of the final scene of Goethe's epic German-language play "Faust." Choir member Sonja Sperling, who is German, coached her fellow singers in pronunciation.
There are other logistical puzzles to solve, including the placement of some soloists and instrumentalists in various spots in the Tabernacle. Adding to the stakes, the performances will be recorded for commercial release. Recording engineers will spend three days placing the microphones. The task usually takes a day, but the Tabernacle's unique acoustical environment complicates matters. (On the flip side, performing such a work in a house built for worship appeals to Fischer.)
"Sometimes challenges make you afraid," the conductor said, "but these challenges are more motivating."
The Tanner Gift of Music presents Mahler's Symphony No. 8.
With • Utah Symphony, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, conductor Thierry Fischer, sopranos Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer and Amy Owens, mezzo-sopranos Charloette Hellekant and Tamara Mumford, tenor Barry Banks, baritone Markus Weba and bass Jordan Bisch
Where • Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square
When • Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19-20, 7 p.m.
Tickets • Free, but they've all been distributed; there will be a standby line at the Temple Square flagpole
Running time • About 80 minutes; no intermission