BSO review: TFC “positively heroic” in Bolcom Symphony #8

It was one of those concerts where you had to wait for the review to see how it came out.

William Bolcom’s Symphony #8 is an enormously complex work compressed into less than 40 minutes of polychromatic, muscular, dense writing, in which the chorus is singing for approximately 35 of those minutes. And the chorus runs its vocal gamut, from sprechstimme to dense six-voice a cappella passages to pure melodic intervals that recall the Andrews Sisters to big Mahlerian finale scales. Add to that an orchestral arrangement that crams a marimba, piano with plucked strings, bells and half a dozen other unusual percussion instruments alongside the strings, winds, and brass, all playing hell for leather through the opening and closing movements, and you begin to understand why the audience response might be muted as they absorb what they heard.

And muted it was. At the end the audience applauded seated, rising to its feet only after the orchestra and chorus stood for their bows. None of the wild adulation that greeted our Gurrelieder performances. We joked onstage that the applause was actually much louder, but that we had been deafened by the French horns and timpani in the final chords.

The Globe’s review (Jeremy Eichler) captures some of the challenges and the rewards of the piece:

The chorus has an extremely prominent role throughout the 35-minute work. Those not steeped in the mythology of Blake’s prophetic poetry will need to rely on help from the program to grasp the meaning of figures like “the shadowy daughter of Urthona” or “the red Orc.” Or you can sit back and let the textual details slide. Bolcom’s choral writing is so assured that the expressive force of the music comes through clearly. This is especially true in the rich and harmonically pungent passage that closes the second movement. The finale ends with a grand orchestral-choral tapestry woven from Blake’s line “For every thing that lives is Holy,” and crowned with a blazing apotheosis.

The sincerity of this music is touching and there is no denying its primal expressive power; its dimensions feel at times overstuffed and its emotional pitch less varied than one might imagine for a cosmos as vast as Blake’s. Singing from memory, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus gave a positively heroic performance, and Levine and the orchestra went a long way toward bringing out the countless buzzing details in this score.