The Mahler Question

After a relaxing break for a couple of weeks in the summer it would be nice to gradually ease myself back into work with something low pressure and easy. Of course in the music business this simply doesn’t happen and so this week we were thrown straight back into the whirlwind of Valery and the Proms. The Scriabin Symphony No 1 was unknown to most people unlike the Firebird. The orchestra gave its all and even managed to set fire to one of the television monitors placed behind us narrowly avoiding the combustible LSO chorus. It was all put out by the time the Firebird started in the second half and it was left to a well rested orchestra to burn the house down for the first time this season. Judging by the roar of approval at the end, which made half the orchestra jump, I think the prommers enjoyed it as did most of the critics.

Fairly shortly afterwards we got on a plane. There was no strike and no volcano although we were still delayed at Gatwick of course and so a quick lunch in Ljubljana was followed by the first of two concerts. After the Prom in which I was pretty busy as it goes, I was lucky enough to be playing second piccolo in Mahler 5 and I wasn’t in the first half at all. This felt like a fairly relaxed concert as I got to sit next to Sharon, who makes my piccolo playing sound better, and Adam “baby” Walker took the strain in the hot seat.

By the time we reached Gstaad for the festival after a stomach churning 3 hour bus ride through the Swiss mountains, I was enjoying playing my part and was in a great position to listen to the spectacular sounds of my colleagues playing Mahler 5.

LSOontour Blog fan and author Norman Lebrecht used a chunk of your favourite LSO tour blog in his new book recently. It was a piece I wrote about Mahler 10, http://lsoontour.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/its-not-about-the-music/

I read the book, which I can thoroughly recommend, sitting by a pool in rural France. The book asks the question, ‘Why Mahler?’ So sitting in Gstaad playing a relatively minor but essential role in the symphony, I was looking around at my colleagues concentrated faces asking myself that very question. The famous trumpet opening played by another young recruit, Phil Cobb, hushed the restless audience with its rallying cry, the rests in between each part of the phrase suddenly revealed hushed reverence, and then the full weight of the orchestra came crashing in at the peak of the phrase. It’s a famous bit that I have heard countless times but still shocks me with its brilliance especially when played by someone so new and fresh in such a fabulous way. The scary thing about Phil is that he is only young and he will inevitably get better, which on a night like tonight doesn’t seem possible. The first movement is quite short (for Mahler) and I was left with a sense of disbelief at what I had heard, but as always with Valery, it is straight on to the next movement until we reach the third movement. The French horn of David Pyatt is always a highlight in this piece. Players tell me that the French horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play, but then they would say that. However the ease with which David seems to swoop around the music, picking out high quiet notes with the accuracy of a laser, makes me suspect that they are liars. He tears the famous call out with such depth of sound that I fear for the fabric of the Gstaad festival tent (like Glastonbury but with gold instead of mud). He is a little older than Phil but like the fine wine he is partial to, gets better with age.

And then the violas gently caress the start of the fourth movement and Bryn the Harp who is sat right beside me picks out the slow arpeggios, the music seems to sink into a comfortable bed. Oh the LSO strings! The sound that they make in this movement is quite extraordinary. It is easy to pick out individual contributions in an orchestra, but looking around at friends in front of me, the collective voice which they sing is like no other sound on earth. As Mahler slowly ramps up the tension and shifts a bass line in an unexpected direction I have to remember to breathe. Gradually the huge shifts in the second violins calm and the music subsides back to where it came from as the finale begins.

The sheer exhilaration of being onstage as the brass cry out their triumphal hymn on the last page makes me want to laugh out loud, but this is impossible whilst playing the piccolo, so I just play a little louder. As the final tempo change of the symphony is indicated by Valery, the orchestra flies towards the finish and the audience for the third time this week roars approval.

As they shout for more, I sit in silence. Sharon and I turn to each other and smile. What can you say after that? Its not often that she and I don’t have anything to say, but right now we both know what each other is thinking.

Why Mahler?

There is no question.

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About LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's top orchestras. Our home is at the Barbican Centre in the City of London where we play over 80 concerts every year, but we also spend quite a bit of time out on the road, touring all over the world. Recently we have toured to Germany, France, Russia, New York, Japan, Holland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Lithuania; and coming up this year are China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Florida, Romania and a return visit to New York, where we are resident at the Lincoln Center.
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6 Responses to The Mahler Question

  1. Elizabeth Owen says:

    Gareth thanks for the wonderful and superb Prom. We enjoyed it so much and sitting in the block next to/in the first violins we were able to watch all of you so closely.
    Incidentally please thank the Japanese young lady violin player for causing much hilarity amongst the prommers when she came on. A stole and a tiara? How do you play the violin wearing a stole? I know it was a prom. but she really didn’t have to go to so much trouble!

  2. Maxine Kwok-Adams says:

    This is the CHINESE lady who was in the tiara and stole! ;-) I think of those poor old prommers who have to stand through the whole concert and like to blind them with some bling! My motto is always to over dress for occasions. I have learnt to adjust my violin technique to anything I am wearing… U should see me at a televised concert ;-)

  3. Elizabeth Owen says:

    Oh dear sorry didn’t mean to be racist just ignorant! I should think you blinded the maestro never mind anyone else. Maybe there should be a dress code???

  4. LSO says:

    We have a dress code! The lovely ladies of the LSO are allowed even encouraged to wear sparkles. You should see us in rehearsals though…

  5. Maxine Kwok-Adams says:

    How dull if we all wore funereal black. I have only ever had compliments from whichever Maestro is on the podium. Interestingly enough many of us think it’s a shame the audiences don’t dress up anymore but that’s another debate! Enjoy the music, that’s what it’s all about after all!

  6. LSO says:

    OK, enough already you two! Lets just agree to disagree and let the music do the talking. Or the blog of course.

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