Mahler 3 at the Proms

After attending some memorable Proms this seasonMahler 10, Turangalîla, Ravel, Mahler 5, The Rite of Spring (post updated!)—I went out on a legal high with Mahler 3—a kind of  fin-de-siècle middle-European equivalent of the cosmic visualization of the Daoist jiao Offering ritual.

By now I must know what I’m in for when I go to hear a Mahler symphony, but it’s always overwhelming. And Prom-goers get to hear some great orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons sounds incredible. Nelsons’ balletic conducting style reminds me of Otto Böhler’s 1899 silhouettes of Mahler.

Now that I have the time and inclination to attend concerts rather than earn a living of sorts by taking part in them, I experience a certain schizophrenia. I’ve been coming to the Proms since the 60s and playing in them since the 70s: this is my cultural background, my home base, so up to a point I might just sink into familiarity.

But with my perspective broadened by attending rituals in rural China and sessions in flamenco bars, and trained by reading books like Musicking and Professional music-making in London, I can’t entirely banish ethnographic thoughts—the genteel behaviour of performers and audience, with the latter scrupulously avoiding any bodily movements, sounds, or signs of emotion; the dress-codes; the complicated pieces of equipment like music-stands containing funny black dots on pieces of paper, on which the performers depend. And all the historical information at the audience’s disposal, like programme booklets (studiously consulted even during the concert), and the radio announcer’s suave comments—while the audience at a soul gig, or a Chinese funeral, may be still more steeped in contextual background, the WAM audience comes expecting to be educated with literate props. And tiny features contribute to the different sounds of European and American orchestras, like their different habits—even down to the way the latter come on stage early to take their places.

Youthful enthusiasm can easily be ground down by the mundane realities of professional orchestral life—a tension well observed by Alan Bennett (here, and here). But then, suddenly, one can be transported—like hearing Wu Mei decorating the funerary hymns of the Daoists (again, notwithstanding ethnography).

So while I value the informed discrimination of the insider, I now wonder if the outsider’s experience, free of such worldly distractions, is just as valid. Even jaded orchestral players cherish those rare moments when they somehow merge into a magical organism.

And apart from all that, it might seem surprising that I’m so taken with the glossy streamlined sound of an orchestra like this. Sure, you can just hear the sponsors rattling their jewellery (to quote John Lennon)—the limousines, the champagne, the alimony payments. But the pain and transcendence of Mahler’s music doesn’t get drowned under the gorgeous sumptuous sound: it’s an irresistible experience, totally immersive, all the more in the intense atmosphere of the Proms.

For all the bravado of the brass-playing fraternity, there’s no shortage of deeply musical playing there (there’s much thoughtful discussion online, like this). Apart from the solos and the blazing tuttis, it’s the perfect blending of timbre that impresses—and that too (as with the Li family Daoists) is a result of a long accumulation of experience throughout the orchestra. I love the utterly implausible idea that Miles Davis, a reluctant pupil at Juilliard, might have ended up in such an orchestra; hearing the subtly calibrated vibrato of the Boston brass reminds me of his comments (for a wide selection of posts on trumpet-playing, see here).

So among all the varied, immersive ways of musicking that give meaning to the lives of sub-communities around the world—orchestral playing is one of them! “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it?”

And while we’re on the Boston Symphony—on a lighter note, don’t miss the Eric Leinsdorf story.

 

 

Musical self-defence

viola

Another orchestral story from 1970s’ London, not so much viola jokes and maestro-baiting as self-defence.

A senior conductor is rehearsing his own chamber orchestra—both have seen better days. There’s a tricky passage for the violas, so he gets the section to play it together without the rest of the band, but it’s still not sounding right.

Opting for the bold step of getting them to play it individually—a demand very much frowned upon—he eyeballs a trusty old player who’s been sitting innocuously at the back of the violas minding his own business since the dawn of time, and asks him imperiously,

“You, Norman—can you play this passage for me?”

Norman looks back at him and remarks dryly,

“Harry, if I could play this passage, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this orchestra…”

 

I can now divulge that this was the very same conductor who had the celebrated exchange with the timpani player. For a wealth of related stories, see here.

 

Ravel: an enchanted Prom

Rattle’s Ravel, or Ravel’s rattle

Ravel prom

After Boléro as a pulsating early overture the previous week, S-S-Simon‘s Ravel Prom was a delight from start to finish.

Even the opening Ma mère l’Oyein the expanded ballet version (1912), less often heard than the suite—was charming, chiming with the childlike world of L’enfant et les sortilèges after the interval. Here too there’s a magic garden, a princess, and birdsong. Ravel’s orientalism, like that of Debussy, was inspired by hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition universelle. Indeed, the organum of the oboes at the beginning and end of L’enfant reminds me of the sheng mouth-organ.

Chinoiserie is prominent in Shéhérazade too. Last year at the Proms Marianne Crebassa sang it exquisitely; in a week when we rejoiced in Aretha Franklin and Madonna, Magdalena Kožená’s singing was further cause for celebration of the wonders of the human voice.

L’enfant et les sortilèges (first performed in 1925, but not heard in Britain until 1958!) is an enchanted, enchanting lyric fantasy. In the story the protagonist is 6 or 7 years old—the same age as the girls for whom Ravel wrote the original piano pieces of Ma mère l’Oye. 

Whereas Colette wrote the text in eight days, Ravel worked on it over several years—she was in awe of the way he brought her libretto to life. Full of variety, the piece blends the comic drôlerie of the furniture, with ragtime and foxtrot, and the astounding fire aria, with the moving scene of shepherds and shepherdesses from the wallpaper leading into the boy’s poignant duet with the storybook princess.

The cat duet leads into a magical evocation of the garden. Here Ravel’s music anticipates Messiaen‘s use of birdsong and the ondes martenot, with evocative use of a slide whistle (Sachs-Hornbostel 421.221.312!—the cheese grater escapes me, though). Now it’s the turn of the animals and birds to indict the boy’s casual cruelties.

Amidst all the quirky virtuosic pastiche, and ravishing orchestration, the moments of tendresse register all the deeper, as he reflects on his errors; redeeming himself at last, the final chorus is a moving atonement.

If only a certain other public figure in the news could be converted from infantile petulant tantrums…

* * *

Both as player and concert-goer, I do admire conductors who trust to memory, dispensing with a distracting score, as S-Simon did for the first half.

Here’s the audio link to the concert—and do watch it on BBC4 while you can!

 

 

Deviating from behavioural norms

Deviation

In Paris with the Li family Daoists, 2017.

Under my fetish for taxonomy, the new subhead for humour under the WAM category contains many orchestral stories.

As Stephen Cottrell observes, they may often be subsumed under what Merriam calls the musician’s “licence to depart from behavioural norms”.

Many, indeed, relate to maestro-baiting (see also conducting tag), like John Wilbraham‘s celebrated comments.

Several stories go in pairs, like

And there’s an indecent wealth of Matthew Passion stories, such as Mein Gott.

Spreading the net wider, for instances of deviant behaviour

  • in Iberian folk traditions, see here and here;
  • and for jazz, e.g. Chet Baker, here and here.

Of course, it’s not only musicians who may have license to depart from behavioural norms, as is clear from the career of Bumbling Boris.

A selection of recent posts

 

To help navigate through a plethora of recent posts, this is just a selection of some of the more substantial ones:


For more, click on MY BLOG in the top menu and scroll down…

Mahler 10

After returning from an exhilarating day with the Zhihua temple at the BM, I caught S-Simon Rattle‘s overwhelming Mahler 10 with the reborn LSO on BBC Radio 3.

Here’s the opening Adagio from the concert—BTW, yet another demo of the benefits of conducting from memory:

And here’s the complete 1980 recording with Simon (“as he was then”—before he was awarded the impediment) conducting the Bournemouth symphony orchestra:

Only half-written before Mahler died in 1911, the work was hardly performed until Deryck Cooke’s completed version became popular in the 1960s. Though I got to know it not so long after, it’s ages since I immersed myself in it.

Under Mahler’s own torments the music often splinters, exemplifying the later devastation of European culture. In context (from 17.24 in the video, 16.15 on the 1980 version) the Scream chord of the Adagio is truly horrifying, presaged by huge nightmarish clashing granite slabs of sound, linked by a terrifying high sustained trumpet note, and followed by a screeching top D from the violins:

Mahler 10 scream

Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing,* but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):

  • 16.15 the descent into hell begins
  • 16.44 rise of Nazism
  • 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
  • 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
  • 17.37 the concentration camp system
  • 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.

Of course, you can ignore all that, and just hear it as a cumulative drama of agony.

Here’s Bernstein conducting the Adagio (with the Vienna Phil still uncontaminated by women…)

* * *

An ominous opening to the Finale—inspired, according to Alma, by hearing from afar the funeral of a heroic fireman in New York [1]—leads into an exquisite flute solo (from 53.57) and sustained string lines (with more of those climactic struggling quintuplets, e.g. from 1.11.51) almost recalling the finale of the 3rd symphony. Despite interruptions from the funeral drum and the Scream, the mood is more serene, less desolate than his other late works.

Mahler 10 end

In last week’s LSO version the violins (and violas?!) made their final searing leap on the G string!!! [My Mahlerian exclamation marks].

M10 end

The Barshai version of the symphony is also much praised:

(for a discerning series of photos to accompany the finale, see here)

* * *

Mahler’s “late” works are such a comprehensive series of farewells (abschied; not so late, but perhaps most moving of all is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommenwith a similar but pianissimo final violin leap) that it’s always strange to realize that he died at the age of 50. What would have become of him had he lived into the 1940s?

 

[1] For accessible accounts of Mahler’s last years, the 1907 New York funeral, and the history of Deryck Cooke’s version, see Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, pp.171–223, 275–9. Here’s Alma’s recollection of the funeral (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters, p.135):

Marie Uchatius, a young art-student, paid me a visit one day in the Hotel Majestic. Hearing a confused noise, we leaned out of the window and saw a long procession in the broad street along the side of Central Park. It was the funeral cortege of a fireman, of whose heroic death we had read in the newspaper. The chief mourners were almost immediately beneath us when the procession halted, and the master of ceremonies stepped forward and gave a short address. From our eleventh floor window we could only guess what he said. There was a brief pause and then a roll of muffled drums, followed by a dead silence. The procession then moved forward and all was over.

The scene brought tears to my eyes and I looked anxiously at Mahler’s window. But he too was leaning out and his face was streaming with tears. The brief roll of the muffled drums impressed him so deeply that he used it in the Tenth Symphony.

 

* Imputing verbal programmes to musical detail, I mean: the whole point of music is that it expresses things that can’t be expressed in words. Even novelists—who do use words!—find this irritating; I can’t find a source or precise quote, but as I recall, when asked “What were you trying to say in this book?”—one frustrated novelist replied, “I was ‘trying’ to say exactly what I did say.” (Martin Amis, would be my guess. Anyone?)

180!!!

More local cultural knowledge:

One morning in Maida Vale studios, as the great Pierre Boulez was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he stopped and said suavely,

“Please, we play again from measure* 180.”

Brilliant cockney percussionist Gary Kettel, from the back of the orchestra, punched the air gleefully and screamed out,

“ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTYYY!!!”

Since Boulez’s broad erudition didn’t stretch to the world of UK darts, he was somewhat nonplussed [‘Ow you say in French?] by Gary’s recondite allusion to the fabled score of three triple 20s. Still, he and Gary always had the utmost respect for each other’s musicianship.

 

*Boulez always used the French word for “bar”. Endearingly, he called the cor anglais “ze English ‘orn”.