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(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of A Thousand")

Unidentified People: (Singing foreign language).

GUY RAZ, host:

You're unlikely to hear the word simplicity in the same sentence with Gustav Mahler. The Austrian composer's symphonies were massive. So back around 1910 when Mahler bragged that his latest composition was the biggest thing he'd done so far, the music world paid attention. And 100 years ago today, Gustav Mahler unveiled that symphony. It was called the Eighth Symphony, and it was such a mammoth piece of work that for its debut, he was joined on stage by more than a thousand musicians and singers.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of A Thousand")

Unidentified People: (Singing foreign language).

RAZ: Mahler's promoter for the event, Emil Gutman, gave the work a new name. He called it "Symphony of A Thousand." Now, Mahler hated that name. He thought it made the piece sound like a Barnum and Bailey production. But it stuck.

The symphony is divided into two main parts. The first is based on a Pentecostal hymn, the second on the final scene of Goethe's "Faust." It's not exactly easy listening, and to this day, some music fans, even Mahler obsessives, just can't abide the audacity of The Eighth.

Mr. MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS (Music Director, San Francisco Symphony): I thought it sounded like the most grotesque assemblage of noises I'd ever heard. I kind of didn't get it.

RAZ: That's Michael Tilson Thomas. He is the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and he first heard the piece as a student. Now, he's since changed his mind about Mahler's Eighth. In fact, this year, Tilson Thomas won a Grammy for his recording of the "Symphony of A Thousand," except he did it with a mere 400 musicians.

Mr. THOMAS: This is just an enormous sound object, so many people and such a large orchestra. I mean, the whole idea of the "Symphony of A Thousand" was kind of a gimmick that was part of the promoter's presentation.

I mean, they were building a special building, an exhibition hall in which this piece was going to be performed. It was uniquely created for the premiere of this piece.

RAZ: This was in Munich, right?

Mr. THOMAS: That is correct, in Munich. Camille Saint-Sa´┐Żns, the great French composer, was there. Leopold Stokowski as a very young man was there. I mean, people perceived that this piece was a major cultural event, and people were coming from all around the world to hear it.

RAZ: How did he do it logistically because he actually staged this with more than a thousand performers.

Mr. THOMAS: Yes. Well, I mean, he had a very big platform.

RAZ: I imagine it was quite big.

Mr. THOMAS: And he had a number of choruses. The piece is for double chorus. So each chorus contained many hundreds of people. And then there was also a children's chorus on top of that and huge orchestra, one of the largest ever put on stage.

So Mahler had a very riveting personality, and he moved in a very animated way, I think a bit windmill-like, kind of grotesque windmill-like at times. But it was very, very clear what he did.

RAZ: I mean, I imagine there were probably performers who couldn't even see him, who couldn't even see his direction.

Mr. THOMAS: No, because they were up on rises. I mean, he was kind of at the bottom of the pyramid, and then stretched around him on his level and then extending upwards, there were like great pie slices, ascending pie slices of singers, many hundreds of them or so on each kind of level

So they could look down, and they could see him pretty clearly.

(Soundbite of "Symphony of A Thousand")

Unidentified People: (Singing foreign language).

RAZ: Michael Tilson Thomas, when you got inside the symphony and sort of broke it down to its elements, what did you learn about it?

Mr. THOMAS: It was a very long, steady process because this is one of those pieces you sit down at the piano, playing it all from the score, and I also try to sing all the parts.

And you do 20 pages, and then somehow, there's still another 20 pages, and after that, it's when are we ever going to get out of this? There's just so much of it at first. It's overwhelming, and it's incredibly intricate as well.

I learned that it was a very touching and human statement. The second movement goes through transformations, first absolutely the most painful, the most gripping music perhaps Mahler ever wrote.

And then it starts to go on this journey, and through all of this, there is the sense of being led forward by the compassionate spirit of women and very importantly by Faust's early love, Gretchen, who died, through her love of him was destroyed by his treacherous love.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMAS: Who now as a spirit sees Faust coming into heaven and is so filled with joy that he is on his road to redemption and intercedes with the higher powers to allow him to complete his salvation, and she sings: My early beloved, no longer troubled, now he comes back. He comes back.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of A Thousand")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing foreign language).

Mr. THOMAS: Then in the closing moments of the piece, at the supreme moment of majesty, suddenly, the entire brass section comes in playing...

(Singing foreign language)

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of A Thousand")

Mr. THOMAS: What they are playing here is the phrase that little Gretchen, little insignificant, nothing Gretchen, the words she said, my early beloved comes back, comes back, comes back. And the meaning of this is Mahler is saying, yes, the enormous design and power of the universe. But the dimension of this one little girl's love, the size, the importance of her love equals the entire majesty of the universe.

And when I first realized that that was his plan, it just floored me. I just sat at the piano, and the tears poured down my face. And I still have that reaction when I hear the music because this is not something that Goethe said. This is not in Goethe's text. This is entirely Mahler's take on the subject. It's just dazzling. I don't think anyone else could've accomplished it.

RAZ: You're hearing the voice of Michael Tilson Thomas. He's the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and we're talking about the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand."

It's so clear that you have such a passionate relationship to this piece. Just hearing you talk about it is quite extraordinary. Have you ever tried to stage it with a full 1,000 musicians and singers?

Mr. THOMAS: No. And I think that would be counterproductive. You know, when you create a piece with enormous forces, there comes a point where you reach diminishing returns. With such a large group of people, everything can start to sound kind of the same.

RAZ: You've conducted this with, not with a thousand people but with several hundreds of people on the stage. It must be pretty daunting.

Mr. THOMAS: Oh, it's so much fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: I'd say it was torture at a certain point to learn it because I thought I'd never come to the end of it. And then, as I was initially performing it, it was like really a struggle just to be able to hear what was going on.

Now, it is utter joy. Not only is it a joy, but it goes by in a flash. It just seems to be over in five seconds.

RAZ: That's Michael Tilson Thomas. He is the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and this past January, he won the Grammy for Best Classical Album for his orchestration of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, "The Symphony of a Thousand." This year marks a hundred years since Mahler first performed it.

Maestro Tilson Thomas, thank you so much.

Mr. THOMAS: Guy, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to talk to you about this fabulous piece.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of A Thousand")

RAZ: And you can hear an excerpt from Michael Tilson Thomas' Grammy-winning recording of the symphony at our website, that's nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony of A Thousand")

RAZ: So this program has finally entered the 21st century. Starting today, we've got a podcast. Now, if you're somewhere in the country where the late summer weather is just too perfect to be sitting inside around a radio, we've got you covered.

Every week, you'll be able to hear the highlights from WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED whenever you want. We'll post the best of this weekend tomorrow, and you can get the podcast delivered to you automatically.

And to do that, check out the website npr.org/weekendatc. That's npr.org/weekendatc.

And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back next weekend, but until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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