NEW YORK (AP) _ For 90 minutes, sitting in Carnegie Hall was more like being in the middle of an orchestra than listening to one from a distance.

Up on stage was The Cleveland Orchestra, seven soloists, the American Boychoir, 100 choristers and guest conductor Robert Shaw. But that's not what made Friday night's concert stunning.

The first and second tiers of the 2,800-seat hall were filled with performers, too: 414 more choristers and seven brass players.

And up on the balcony, topping it off, was soprano Christine Goerke, to sing the three lines of the Virgin Mary, beginning: ``Come! Raise yourself to the supreme spheres ... ''

In all, there were five choruses and 688 musicians under the conductor's command. It's no wonder, then, that Mahler's Eighth Symphony is rendered so rarely.

The performance, the second in two nights, was scaled down when compared to the work's premier in 1910. During that performance in Munich, Germany, there were 171 instrumentalists, 858 singers and Mahler himself on the podium. Emil Gutmann, the promoter, gave the work a nickname that stuck: ``Symphony of a Thousand.''

Why all the assembled voices? Mahler, in a rare upbeat mood, wanted to create a sound that both soared to the heavens and descended to the audience.

The two-movement symphony opens with a 22-minute Latin hymn, ``Veni, Creator Spiritus,'' which translates to ``Come, Creator Spirit.'' The language for the second movement shifts to German for the final scene of Goethe's ``Faust,'' culminating in the ``Mystical Choir'' imploring over an organ: ``Here insufficiency becomes fulfillment, here the indescribable is accomplished.''

Overall, the performance was spectacular, if not perfect. It made this listener wonder about Leonard Bernstein's last Mahler cycle, missing only the Eighth Symphony at the time of his death in October 1990. Given his brooding, euphoric performances of Mahler in his later years, what would his final take on the work have sounded like?

But comparing anyone else's Mahler to Bernstein's is unfair. Perhaps no other conductor has been generally accepted as the definitive interpreter of one composer.

Shaw, twirling at times like a soldier on a turntable to face the choristers in the tiers, massed an ethereal sound from The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, the Oberlin College Choir and The American Boychoir.

The soloists also were excellent. Miss Goerke was joined by sopranos Bridgett Hooks and Margaret Jane Wray; mezzosopranos Janis Taylor and Marietta Simpson; tenor Kim Begley; baritone William Stone; and base-baritone John Cheek.

Applause replaced the chorus and it descended and ascended to the stage. At times one forgets that not all Mahler is depressing.