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Vancouver Symphony tackles Mahler for Olympiad

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra plans to kick off its 2010 Winter Olympic program with a work so big it takes an orchestra, three choirs and eight soloists to perform.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra plans to kick off its 2010 Winter Olympic program with a work so big it takes an orchestra, three choirs and eight soloists to perform.

Conductor Bramwell Tovey said he chose Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 for the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad because it celebrates "the most optimistic and hopeful side of the human spirit."

Mahler's Symphony No. 8 is often referred to as the Symphony of a Thousand, a term that Mahler dismissed as sheer hype.

At its performances in Vancouver Saturday and Monday, there will be just over 400 people on stage, including the orchestra, the Vancouver Bach Choir, the Vancouver Children's Chorus and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

The prospect of performing such an exciting piece of music, and of being in Vancouver for the Olympiad, helped with the logistics of booking some of Canada's greatest singers, Tovey said.

Sopranos Measha Brueggergosman, Tracy Dahl and Germany's Turid Karlson are to perform solos, as are mezzo-sopranos Susan Platts and Sarah Fryer, tenor John MacMaster, baritone Russell Braun and bass-baritone Denis Sedov.

"The demands on each voice are really quite extraordinary — they're very heavy demands," Tovey said, adding that he had to feel he could "rely on the singers concerned."

The piece is long — 85 minutes — and requires very exact timing so the singers can draw a breath.

"Each voice has a full orchestra behind it. To sing for piano is one thing, when you can just sing in front of the piano texture, but when you have an orchestra, you're at battle with the orchestra and you have to give your voice extra support and it requires extra tone and quality to really work," Tovey said.

The symphony begins with a movement in Latin, that can be interpreted either as worship or as praise of the creative spirit. The 80-person children's choir takes the lead here, singing Veni, creator spiritus (Come, creator spirit.)

"The first movement sounds so wonderful in Latin, you wouldn't want to change it," Tovey said, explaining why he chose to perform the symphony in the original Latin and German, rather than in English. The Vancouver performance will have Surtitles.

The second part in German is taken from Goethe's Faust, a story of human love that Tovey describes as "life-affirming."

Soprano Tracy Dahl sings the beautiful Mater Gloriosa from high up on a balcony, as if a voice from heaven.

Tovey has conducted Symphony No. 8 before — at the 50th anniversary of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1997, when he was music director there.

This time, he said he is both honouring the 150th birthday of Mahler and celebrating the Olympic spirit.

The choirs, singers, musicians and extra musicians coming from across Canada to add to the big Mahler sound have been practising on their own, but Tovey has just three days of rehearsal with them all on one stage.

"It's one of those pieces that a conductor experiences on all levels. First of all you can't help but be affected emotionally and spiritually and philosophically  by the music. It's such great music," he said.

"On the other hand, I'm like an enormous traffic policeman — I'm cueing people all over the place. I can't let my mind react and just enjoy the music. I have to keep firm control."

Mahler's Symphony No. 8 is being performed Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. The performance is supported by VANOC, the BC Arts Council and the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario.