Do you pay attention to the Grammy Awards? I must confess: I don’t, not especially. Sure it’s fun to watch the yearly fashion show, and see the lights and glitter and lip-syncing played out… and we chuckle at all the winners’ babble, and then laugh at the commentary about the babble, and then at the commentary about all the commentary! But, when it comes down to it, frankly, most of the time I’m left with the feeling of where’s the music? Where’s the real music?
You know, the stuff that reeks wonderfully of sincerity, and toil? The stuff that literally changes your life when you hear it… where’s that? Where’s the music that catches your breath and makes your hair stand on end, and you know in an instant that if you heard that music again many years later it would be just as moving and thrilling and awe-inspiring if not more so. Where is that, the real music, the PASSION?
So, for this year’s Grammy’s, I decided to cast only a half-hearted eye and ear in the direction of Hollywood. Save some time, right? Wrong! Shocker of shockers: out of the amplified din of platform shoes and cleavage and craziness, there comes a name that I intimately recognized, a name on the winners’ list that grabbed my attention and made me sit up straight–Mahler. Mahler?! Composer Gustav Mahler, who passed away in 1911?! Yikes, yes!!! Here in the winners’ circle, his soul was unmistakenly present: his music was shining in the spotlights, gloriously–and not once, not twice, but three times:
- BEST CLASSICAL ALBUM–Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
- BEST CHORAL PERFORMANCE–Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
- BEST ENGINEERED CLASSICAL ALBUM–Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 8 and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
Now, personally, I have to say, “Hot damn, this rocks!” For Mahler’s 8th is incredible. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult symphonies of all time to pull off, partially because of the sheer size of the undertaking and because of all the components involved: a huge orchestra, large chorus, multiple soloists, organ, children’s choruses… hundreds, let me just say that again, hundreds of musicians are involved! No wonder it became known in Mahler’s time as his “Symphony of a Thousand”– a universe of bodies is required! And performed today, it is just as vast and complicated and mindboggling.
But what is even more amazing about Mahler’s 8th is that, in spite of the epic-ness of it all, the music is alarmingly transparent. Dangerously transparent. For Mahler was fanatical in his orchestration and scoring: he crafted every single voice and lone instrumental line with such absolute perfection, that each is frighteningly exposed exactly as he intended. And what does this mean? No lip-syncing soloists found here! No shrinking violets anywhere on a Mahler-symphony stage! No, here the musicians are real and true, and brave–they have to be! They stand in a sea of humanity upon that stage, strong with years of education, sweat and toil in their blood; yet each person is individually called upon to prevail like a solitary and humble hero, taking a giant leap into the sky whenever Mahler asks it of them.
Well… leap they do, all of them do, here in this three-Grammy-award-winning recording of Mahler’s 8th Symphony! Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, the Pacific Boys Choir, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, the soloists, the engineers–all of them make a quantum leap in this amazing recording. Individually and together they soar, always genuinely, throughout this entire enormous work. And the results of this, for you and me? Magnificence! Brilliance! And tears. Magnificence that is almost overwhelming! Brilliance that can scarcely be described! And tears, tears that glisten with life’s full spectrum of colors… tears of joy, because Mahler always shows us the soul of humanity.
With Mahler, it is always all about the MUSIC. Isn’t that what the Grammy’s are supposed to be about?
Below, be sure to check out this short but first-rate video (produced by the San Francisco Symphony and entitled “A Universe of Sound”) on the production of this extraordinary Mahler’s 8th Symphony recording. You’ll get to hear the conductor and some of the engineers and musicians commenting on what it was like rehearsing and preparing for this LIVE recording! It’s a rare view, only a few minutes in length–and I get incredibly excited every time I watch it. What inspiration!