This afternoon we say goodbye to New York for another year, fittingly playing Mahler’s ninth symphony, probably one of the great musical farewells. It is one of those pieces that everybody seems to have in their minds a perfect interpretation, whether it is the coolness of some or the emotional torment of others. Bernard, more than any other tries to give an interpretation that does what Mahler asks. As the end of the final movement draws to a close and the violas slowly expand the melody to silence, it feels like a dignified farewell rather than a terrifying journey into darkness. As we were rehearsing yesterday morning, I sat back and listened to the warmth of the string section and despite the sadness of the music I couldn’t help smiling at the beauty of the sound being created around me.
Playing Mahler is a bit like doing a big jigsaw puzzle. There are so many lines going on at the same time, so many rhythms and different dynamics that you really do have to pay attention to what is on your page. Quite regularly the clarinets will be playing ff whilst the flutes are playing the same line pp with a sudden crescendo to ff on the last two quavers of the phrase. If you play what is written it has a very different effect to simply playing loudly all the time. Very often the long line of the melody is cut up between five or six instruments, each one playing a fragment of the phrase. It takes a great deal of skill to knit the parts together. Going back to that article I mentioned earlier on in the week from the Guardian, I can’t think how on earth an orchestra would manage to play this symphony without a conductor. They really are like a film director who has a vision of the whole picture, directing the actors to do the right thing at the right time so that the final cut becomes clear. It’s almost impossible to get an impression of how it sounds from within the orchestra, you can see to many of the building blocks; much like looking at an impressionist painting, you have to stand back to see whats going on. Or in the words of another great artist, R. Harris, “Can you tell what it is yet?”
A lot of the rehearsal involves practicing tempo changes (there are a lot) and balancing instruments. However, not all fortes are created equal as we discovered yesterday. There are vulgar moments when instruments shriek out from the texture and there are others where we all have to seamlessly merge from one to the other. Quite often an encouraging gesture or a hand raised is enough to achieve Benard’s required balance, but yesterday Lorenzo was-a little enthusiastic in one of his entries on bass clarinet. Bernard stopped the rehearsal.
“Bass clarinet, I know that it says forte for your entrance, however I am sure that the bass clarinet that Mahler used was not as good as you!”
Point made, Lorenzo disappeared back into the texture.
As we say goodbye to New York this afternoon with a farewell of a piece, we also sadly say goodbye to one of our longest serving members, 2nd oboe player John Lawley. John has been central to the LSO for many years and was chairman of the orchestra for a long period. However, aside from all of the politics, boardroom dealings and sponsors dinners that he has attended over the years, I know that for John, it’s the music that matters. As we audition for new oboe players, it simply emphasises how good John is at his job and how experienced he is, and how hard it is to replace people like him.
After all the speeches are over this afternoon and the achievements are listed, we will be left to say goodbye in the way we know best, by playing music. John once said to me that the best thing about his job was that whatever arguments you had with people off stage, and however bad you felt, once you got on that stage and started playing, it was all forgotten, nothing else mattered. I know what he means.