See more of the story

Osmo Vänskä isn't easing his way out.

After 19 years as the Minnesota Orchestra's music director, it would be understandable if he chose to depart with a feel-good finale that evoked a warm, wistful air.

But no: Vänskä is spending his last weekend on the job conducting a tremendously demanding work, Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand" because it can seem like there are that many musicians onstage (there are more than 300, anyway), it features four choirs, seven vocal soloists and an expansive orchestra.

Moreover, the concerts are being recorded as the latest installment in the orchestra's complete Mahler symphonic cycle. So posterity looms.

Judging from Friday night's first performance, musical history should treat Vänskä and the orchestra kindly. The 85-minute symphony was well executed, the balance and dynamic contrast within the orchestra as impressive as has become customary during Vänskä's tenure. And the four choirs blended together splendidly, particularly during a tenderly rendered finale. Add some memorable vocal solos and this was a goodbye to remember.

At first, it seemed potentially overwhelming, but that's the nature of Mahler's Eighth, which opens with fever-pitch intensity that only increases throughout the first movement, a summoning of the heavenly muse that sounds as if it's intended to be heard on higher planes.

Choirs and vocal soloists layered lines one atop another, the orchestra matching them with each fortissimo. Even a diehard Mahler-lover couldn't be blamed for seeking some refuge from the relentlessness.

And it arrived in the second of the symphony's two movements, a setting of the final scene from Johann Goethe's "Faust." This is where the orchestra's crispness at last crawled out from under all that volume. Drama was built through sparse exchanges between instruments, sometimes haunting, as were the choir's clipped, almost-whispered phrases. And concertmaster Erin Keefe had some magnetic solos, as did principal French horn Michael Gast.

Speaking of solos, the guest vocalists all had much to recommend them, but both baritone Julian Orlishausen and bass-baritone Christian Immler sometimes had difficulty being heard above the orchestra and choirs.

That was not the case with tenor Barry Banks, who shone brightly whenever he seized the spotlight. His final solo, as the music became increasingly meditative, provided one of the evening's most beautiful moments. Soprano Carolyn Sampson gave us another soon afterward, rising subtly upward from the chords of the choir. And soprano Jacquelyn Wagner delivered one soaring solo after another, raising the roof with her high notes near the symphony's conclusion. Contralto Jess Dandy also impressed.

A translation projected against the giant cubes on Orchestra Hall's south wall caught my eye near evening's end: "The indescribable; here, it is done." That seemed a fine summation of what Mahler accomplished.

It also captures what Vänskä made possible during his tenure. When he stretched his arms upward and outward in seeming exultation near the symphony's end, I thought to myself: "That's how I'll remember him." As a high-energy, high-work ethic conductor who, when he and the musicians really clicked, looked to be finding a level of ecstasy in his work that I imagine we all wish we could achieve.

Farewell, Maestro. It's been an inspiring couple of decades.

Minnesota Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $40-$109. 612-371-5656 or