I first heard about NYO taking on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony just over a year ago. It was not long before audition season, and I remember listening to the fourth movement on Spotify whilst wondering if I’d be lucky enough to perform it the following summer.
Quite often people ask me what classical music can offer in comparison to other genres. I usually tell them that the most gifted composers in history were able to write music that captured an astonishingly vast range of emotions, often so deep and intense that it can transport you to a completely different state of mind. I am usually thinking of Mahler.
Ever since I performed his first symphony when I was 14, shedding tears during the final bars, Mahler's music has represented everything I love about being a classical musician. I suppose this is why I felt a little daunted when I received the Ninth Symphony part in the post a few weeks ago (all 32 pages of it!). I didn’t want to ruin the magic by getting hung up on the technicalities: absurd key signatures, having to save bow longer than you ever thought possible, and the list goes on.
However, I needn’t have worried. Our principal conductor this summer is Sir Mark Elder, and it was clear from the very first tutti rehearsal that not only does he understand this piece from an analytical perspective, but he is also able to communicate the emotional intentions that lead Mahler to write what he did. This ensures that we as a group of musicians have a common goal in what we are trying to say with our music to each listener. The third movement, he told us today, should feel sarcastic and bitter, as it was Mahler’s way of proving to his critics that he could indeed write complex counterpoint, and that they should take back their snobbish assumptions that he was not up to this task.
We then spent hours rehearsing the fourth movement in assiduous detail. Sir Mark’s description of the emotional turmoil that Mahler experienced when coming to terms with the loss of a child, and the questions he would have been trying to answer, made the whole room hushed and still with a shared sense of respect. This is a big achievement when there are brass players who counted rests for hours without playing a note!
I couldn’t have chosen a better way to spend my last-ever NYO residency, and I am certain that there will once again be post-concert tears after our final performance of the year.