Smack Down – Mahler 5 – It’s personal!….

Conductor Smack Down!
Conductor Smack Down!

It’s been a while since we did one of these, but since mentioning that I was conducting a performance of Mahler’s 5th, Bill suggested we don the gloves for yet another round.

Now this time it’s personal! Mahler 5 is like family to me, it even stopped my rebellious teenagehood in its tracks…well for a day anyway…..
First things first, our performance went over big, the audience reaction was incredible. If Mahler does anything, it makes at least the Springfield Symphony musicians check out their parts way in advance (some even last summer). The preparation was evident from the first rehearsal and there were voluntary sectionals organized by two section leaders (beverages may have been promised or involved but I cannot confirm), it was like we were preparing for the Superbowl, the rehearsals were exciting and inspiring with the way everyone was launching themselves into it, and I think we are now a better orchestra for it. To cap it off we got a great review. Here is an excerpt from the 2nd Movement recorded on my Zoom H2 at one of our rehearsals (warts and all!):

Let’s just say we all felt pretty good about it, if not a little sore, and one thing I know Bill and I agree upon, is that Advil is the wonder drug!

Back to 1985, when I was 16 years old, I actually got to play the first Trumpet part in a performance with the Sydney Youth Symphony at the Sydney Opera House, conducted by one of my first mentors, the late Stuart Challender. I must have played through that opening solo at home 500 times, and wore out the Karajan Berlin Phil recording (on vinyl). I had never been one for hours of practice, but Mahler’s 5th changed that!!!

I will never forget the first rehearsal, I was dropped off across the street from where we were rehearsing at Syndey Grammar School, and for the first time in my life to that point, I walked up to the crosswalk, pressed the button and waited for the walk signal. I remember thinking, I just want to stay alive long enough to play this with an orchestra! All my friends were crossing the road before the signal changed (there were no cars coming either way), yelling at me what are you waiting for!? I just stood there determined not to take a chance. My mother would always tell me to wait for the walk signal, my grandfather (her father and the one who started it all for me) never ever crossed when it said don’t walk. I wasn’t listening to either of them though, it was Mahler that was telling me! We spent a semester on the work, it was a glorious time especially in the Brass sectionals when we didn’t have to count the rests! The performance in that glorious concert hall is one of my most treasured memories, especially when right before I walked out to take my seat, Stuart (who was nervous) put his huge hand on my shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze, saying nothing but not needing to, it was all the assurance I needed. How cool it was to finally perform it with all my friends, being gestured by that same hand to take a solo bow for the first time in my life, and then getting mentioned by name in the review. Yet the most unforgettable thing about the performance was listening to the 4th Movement Adagietto, my Trumpet on my lap, it was transformational, mesmerizing, and the first time I had really heard it in full since we were always let go early for the Strings to rehearse it! It is the only movement of the Symphony I had conducted up until our recent performance, and sill is my favorite movement, especially after learning years ago that it was his marriage proposal! Here is another rehearsal excerpt from the Adagietto:

I thought Mahler was the be all and end all, I bought all of the Symphonies. Abbado with the Chicago Symphony still are my favorite recordings (although if you can find Giulini’s recording of the 9th with Chicago, it is well worth it), yet it has been many years since I have listened to Mahler on a regular basis. It’s funny but since becoming a conductor full time over a decade ago the music that most excites me (pre 20th century) is the Classical/very early Romantic era. If I had to make a choice between doing Mahler’s 9 (plus his attempt at a 10th) Symphonies, Haydn’s last 9, Mozart’s last 9, Beethoven’s 9 and Brahms 4 symphonies, I honestly would put Mahler at the bottom, but would still really hope to get to them. If I played keyboard I would probably put Bach at the very top.

Some analogies here, Mahler is like Everest because even though it might be the highest peak physically, it doesn’t mean the view from up there is the most spectacular, but it is still breathtaking (literally!). If he were an actor, he would have been a big star like a Schwarzenegger with real box office power appearing in the blockbuster special effect laden movies, where as Beethoven, Mozart etc… well they were the true thespians like a Laurence Olivier forever honing the nuance, peeling away the layers, no special effects required, compelling even in silence, a study in character development (even years later). Hey but we still love the blockbuster too!

Mahler did make an incredible contribution though to the idea of unleashing an orchestra in near unrestrained expression and passion, broadening the boundaries of sonic possibility and surround sound live. It is also at times intimacy on the grandest of scales and is visceral to the nth degree. There is also an incredible beauty in his solo vocal writing. For me personally his music is bracing and embracing all at once, it just doesn’t let go! I recommend highly to read Norman Lebrecht’s Mahler Remembered in which there are incredible accounts by people who knew Mahler and/or had been to performances given by him.

Preparing the 5th as a conductor was both re-living my youth, like catching up with old friends, but also satisfying on so many levels. I felt propelled by the work and the combination of the orchestra’s achievement, the power of the music and the overwhelming reaction from the audience was an emotional rush! All through that week, whilst I didn’t need to wait at any cross walks since I drive now, I did obey all road rules and didn’t speed. Of course that all changed when we were in rehearsals!

Long live the 5th!

Here is the last part of the 5th movement from our dress rehearsal:

3 thoughts on “Smack Down – Mahler 5 – It’s personal!….”

  1. Sydney Youth Symphony? I’m pretty certain it was called Sydney Youth Orchestra, even in the 1980s. You’ve been in America too long!

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