Mahler Mayhem?

It is often an overlooked part of university life – the effort put in by hundreds of students every few weeks in trying to achieve the best possible performance of some of the most challenging pieces in the entire classical music repertoire. This year, ensembles throughout the university have worked tirelessly to put on performances of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s tale, Beethoven’s Mass in C and Liszt’s 1st piano concerto, all of which require virtuosic levels of technical ability and substantial hours of rehearsal time. This term was no exception, with a performance of one of the longest and most demanding works in the repertoire: Mahler Symphony No. 2. This involved the university’s flagship symphony orchestra, the Philharmonia, the University Choir, alumni students, conductors Jonathon Tilbrook and David Lawrence, and two renowned soloists Anna Dennis (Soprano) and Jeanette Ager (Mezzo-Soprano).

A Mahler symphony in the classical music world is no ordinary concert. They are seen more as events. Last year, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic’s British tour of Mahler’s 3rd symphony sold out within a day of tickets going on sale and, at last summer’s BBC Proms, the performance of the second symphony by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela sold out in a mere two hours. Even with just a superficial understanding of the works, it is easy to see why a Mahler symphony makes for a very different classical music experience.

Out of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies, the orchestration rarely drops below 100 players (the only substantial drop in numbers is the fourth symphony) and often makes use of solo singers and chorus, which is not always common in symphonic music. Nor is Mahler trivial when selecting subject matter for his symphonies. In discussion with his fellow composer, Jean Sibelius, Mahler stated that: “The symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything!”. This philosophy was carried through in almost all the pieces he wrote after his first symphony. The particular symphony in question is known as the ‘Resurrection’ symphony and was Mahler’s first symphony to be recorded in its entirety. It was also one of his best-received symphonies during his lifetime, both critically and financially. Mahler initially devised a programme (or a narrative description) for the composition that he described to the journalist Max Marschalk: the symphony starts with a funeral for the hero of the first symphony and ponders the metaphysical question of life after death. The second and third movements are interludes to the final section where the apocalypse occurs and the glory of God appears (as Mahler saw it). The final message of the symphony is one of overwhelming love.

“The musicianship throughout the orchestra was staggering and successfully transported the audience to the heights of metaphysical contemplation.” Stephen Mumford, Dean of Arts

Individual musicians are stretched to their limits whilst performing this symphony as each part contains several solos, or at the very least exposed intricate parts essential to the overall effect of the piece. Each individual cannot afford to be switched off at any point, meaning the piece demands high levels of concentration as well as excellent technical ability at the instrument to last throughout the more than an hour-and-a-half-long behemoth of work.

Due to the complexity of all the parts, the orchestra underwent an intensive three-weekend rehearsal process in the weeks leading up to the concert. Students gave up around 15 hours of their time per weekend, (which is more than most students have in a week!). The choir met weekly for rehearsals under chorus master David Lawrence around two months before the concert and started practicing with the orchestra the weekend before the concert. Despite the fact that the choir only begins singing fifteen minutes from the end, the importance of their part cannot be underestimated as it is essential to the effect of the piece and is almost ethereal if executed well. All the parts for the piece (up to 200 hundred players!) are difficult, so individual practice was a necessity with each student putting in hours of practice to hone their parts, ready for the performance.

Due to the dedication of everyone involved, performances at the university rarely fall below a fantastic standard. This term was no exception and gave a fine example as to why music making is such an important part of university life. It not only gives the university a cultural identity but also provides stimulation for everyone to see what can be achieved with hard work and diligence.

Steven Kenny


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