Showing posts with label Gustav Mahler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gustav Mahler. Show all posts

Monday, October 21, 2019

The triumph of Mahler

Saturday was a day I shall remember for a very long time. When strange things connect, when music does what it was meant to do, when people from all parts of life reach new heights and new meanings come together and you realise that over the years melodies converge: we all need each other more than ever. 

Even today it's hard to know where to begin, but here it is - from the flame of a single candle in Wells Cathedral to the tsunami of energy and light that is Mahler's Symphony No.2 at its best.

Inside Wells Cathedral

I was in Wells for its Festival of Literature. Having arrived the night before (and massive thanks to the festival and its representatives for such a warm and hospitable welcome!), I started the day with a visit to the cathedral, which I had virtually to myself. It's an awe-inspiring place, with proportions, geometry and grace that are exceptional even among its magnificent peers in York, Salisbury, Lincoln et al. It was silent, rapt, atmospheric. I lit a candle. I have not ever been much into religion, prayer or belief, but the state of things at present has strange effects: perhaps a little focus, some valiant intent, some deeply held hope can make a difference. On a more mundane plane, at the market afterwards, I availed myself of a big shiny spider brooch à la Lady Hale. One unintended consequence of The Brexs**t Show is that I've developed a whole new admiration for lawyers.

My assignment in the festival was to be interviewer to Jane Glover about her book Handel in London. It's a beautiful and fascinating volume (I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out last year) and brings 18th-century London to vivid life. Some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion, though, were about the man himself: who was Handel? How do you get, well, a handle on him? Few letters exist; some famous anecdotes may be apocryphal; some may have been misinterpreted. Jane is convinced that when he threatened to throw Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window it was simply a joke to defuse a dangerous prima donna situation. The key, she suggests, is in the music and perhaps can be found most keenly in L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato - which ends with a quiet contemplation at the fireside. Perhaps at the end of a long day, he liked to go home, shut the door and gaze quietly into the flames. 

Jurowski rehearsing Mahler with the LPO
Meanwhile in London, the flames were metaphorical as more than a million people took to the streets to surround parliament and shout against Brexit. Wells is in Somerset, a good hike from London via Bath, and I didn't get back until about 5pm, so annoyingly missed the midday march and most of the action - but the atmosphere upon arrival was uplifting nonetheless. To see the number of blue-and-yellow berets and flags and placards and smiling protestors brought the feeling that one could breathe, that the clouds had lifted and that all hope has not yet been crushed. I've been gorging on the reports and videos. Who knows if it will make a difference; if it does not, dark times lie ahead; once that slippery slope begins, its end point cannot be predicted. Some of my musician friends, acting as canaries in the UK coal mine, departed several years ago for more open-minded shores and have scarcely been seen since. I can't blame them. More will doubtless follow. 

A discussion yesterday found a family member describing Brexit as a "category error", which is why it can never work: you are trying to impose one narrative onto a framework that is not designed for it and cannot hold it. Oddly enough, this is how too many opera productions seem to be at present; comedies handled with the weight of a Mahlerian mallet (Orpheus in the Underworld), or by all accounts a blingy and ludicrous staging of Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus, which is emphatically not a comedy. I wonder if this is symptomatic.

At the South Bank, I slunk into Tom's rehearsal for the Mahler 'Resurrection' Symphony. There in the choir seats was Dame Sarah Connolly, singing the mezzo solos. She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but spent the afternoon on the march singing choruses from Carmen, Beethoven 9 and (I hope) "Bollocks to Brexit" with a group from the Royal Opera, then came to rehearsal and performance singing with a dignity and eloquence that had to be heard to be believed. 

The concert was one in a million, or would have been were it not the third in close succession conducted by Vladimir Jurowski that was on this level and left me lost for words. All of life was here: the darkness and the dread, the elegant and ironic grace, the sardonic yowls, the deep, rapt spirit of nature, the blinding blaze of redemption. 

The LPO, Jurowski and Sarah Connolly in rehearsal
Recently I interviewed the artist Mat Collishaw - one of the Young British Artist generation, who's working on a fascinating musical project. He made an impact on me by stating something that should perhaps be obvious, but is not: namely, that without darkness, beauty loses its meaning. He tries to bring both into his artwork, which is often, or usually, an extraordinary mix of beauty and horror. (Explore his works here.)

Occasionally someone says something that changes how you experience art, or even life. My best example was Boulez, who said in our interview that you can't just stand in front of something you can see is wrong and do nothing. This is the next mind-bender. Both statements seem no-brainers when you think back over them later, which must be why they have such an effect: because do we truly think about such things? Do we articulate them to ourselves clearly enough? Can we understand them and assimilate their principles if we don't? Here's a moment when everything comes into focus, when you know there is a lesson that is meant for you, now, right here. You sense the idea crawl on the back of your neck, burrow into your innards: you need this message. 

"Gravity and grace," said Mat. And listening to Vladimir's Mahler, how right his words seemed. I've grumbled in the past about Mahler performances that lacked adequate darkness. Here was one that said "You want it darker?" and went there - all the better to rise to the heavens at the end. And my God, it was overwhelming. The playing was taut, furious, unified, exultant; Sarah Connolly and Sofia Fomina as soloists; the LPO Choir and London Youth Choir giving everything. The audience was on its feet within seconds of the final chord, yelling. Backstage, conversation was difficult because everybody's breath had been so totally removed that nobody could find the right words. Many were in tears, some of the orchestra included. And Marina Mahler, the composer's granddaughter, was there. 

After the Mahler
The orchestra's journey to the stratospheres has been remarkable to experience; perhaps, faced with the imminent departure of Vladimir to Munich in 2021, they've now realised what they currently have on the podium. But this Mahler, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique the other week and, in between, the Strauss Alpine Symphony have been a trilogy the like of which we see and hear all too rarely in the grand scheme of things. (The question arises: if more music-making held this degree of excellence and meaning, would we appreciate it so much...? hmm.)

Vladimir's journey, too, has been a saga of building, experimenting, exploring, deepening, widening and now flowering on uppermost branches. As for Sarah: my heart is in pieces over her indomitable stance, her dignity and determination and the way she channels the lot into her singing. Jane remarked in out talk in Wells that Handel would have adored a singer such as Sarah Connolly. Seconded. I know too many people who are suffering from this appalling illness at present (its latest victim is the wonderful journalist Deborah Orr) - a terrifying scourge on women, often of our age group. Please send all your energy, your healing, your hope and your determination to Sarah as she embarks on a new journey, through chemotherapy.

At this level, music becomes a matter of life and death; nothing is ever "just a piece of music", but now we know how and why not. And that's what music is for. Without its role as ultimate catharsis, reaching the heart directly, beyond words, beyond sight, beyond intellect, it loses its power. Without darkness there is no light. 


Update, 22 Oct: I am mightily embarrassed to realise that originally I didn't mention the other piece in the programme: Colin Matthews, 'Metamorphosis' from Renewal. It's a glistening, intense setting of Ovid, burrowing into the text's exploration of the world in a constant state of flux. It was performed at the start of the concert and led straight into the Mahler. Even if it was the latter that produced the sensation of Total Overwhelm, it was the Ovid that I later copied out into my "commonplace book" and that actually encapsulates much of my feeling about the symbolic lessons of this evening as articulated above.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work in progress: IMMORTAL, a novel in which Beethoven is a rather crucial character. Please visit its page at Unbound for further details.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Tonight: A fundraising concert for UNICEF Syria Children's Appeal

Conductor Nicolas Nebout is heading a fundraising concert tonight at St James Piccadilly in aid of UNICEF's Syria Children's Appeal. Please come along if you can, or donate to the charity at the links below.

Nicolas says:

"We will perform Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder with the internationally renowned British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and a world premiere by award-winning Syrian composer Malek Jandali - all profits going to UNICEF.

"It will be an inspiring evening for all involved and I hope this event will be an opportunity to unite the classical music community in the UK behind this important cause! People can show their support on social media with hashtag #MusiciansForSyria. "

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Venezuela, El Sistema and the end of Chavez

Hugo Chavez is dead. What now for Venezuela - and for El Sistema, which has spread from the country to revolutionise the role of music in children's lives worldwide?

Opinions split. First of all, it would be a mistake to associate El Sistema too deeply with Chavez. It was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu - long before Chavez came to power. It has been supported by the state, but it's Abreu's baby, not Chavez's. But some accuse Chavez, perhaps with good reason, of having used its popularity and influence as a whitewash to gild his image and that of the iniquities of his regime. Abreu and Venezuela's most celebrated musical figurehead, Gustavo Dudamel (left), meanwhile have both insisted that music is above politics.

This article from the New York Times, published just over a year ago, presents some arguments and opinions very well: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/arts/music/venezuelans-criticize-hugo-chavezs-support-of-el-sistema.html?_r=0
The situation evokes age-old questions about the intersection of art and politics: Should they remain separate? Should artists denounce politics they don’t agree with? At what cost should culture be kept alive?
The Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero has been extremely outspoken against the current state of Venezuela. This morning she has commented via Facebook:
Today, Chavez died. Venezuela needs a renewal. We don't need the emotional and social disease that has infiltrated our society. We need POSITIVE change for all. We don't need the attempts of the government to instill more paranoia. The "Imperialists" did not poison Chavez and cause his cancer. We need to work towards a Venezuela free of these toxic thoughts that defy logic and manipulate the emotions of the Venezuelan people. We need good people to lead. I congratulate the students in my country for being so brave and selfless. To all those people who are mourning the death of one man, please, mourn the 21,000 plus people who were murdered in Venezuela last year. Think about that very real figure. Who is mourning all those victims? Think about the social decay that Venezuelans live in, day in and day out. Let's keep the perspective of our recent history, and be conscious that a lot of work needs to be done.
So the end of Chavez means an opportunity for real and positive change in the country - if it can be brought about as Gabriela hopes.

But nobody is suggesting that that should mean the end of El Sistema. At least, I hope they're not. Art and politics become terribly intertwined, as you know, at all the wrong moments. Those opposed to "socialist" policies and to state support for culture in general tend to turn guns on El Sistema for their own ends. We'd like to think that the worth of music goes beyond that.

Besides, the fact is that El Sistema works. It's been proven to work - and it is even working on this island of ours. Here's Sistema Scotland. And here's In Harmony, the expanding English branch.

(If anyone is still confused about the loss of empirical fact as a core value under the slews of political opinion, I recommend Adam Curtis's latest fascinating blogpost.)

To condemn El Sistema because it has been supported by a dubious state would ultimately mean throwing out a lot of babies with the murky bathwater. Remember, there are many more than 50 shades of grey in this world. Let's maintain those matters that do most good for humanity as a whole, please. Music is one of those.

The positive influence of El Sistema will outlive Chavez. And Mahler will outlive us all. Here's the Simon Bolivar Orchestra with the Dude doing a spot of it at the Proms.










Friday, August 31, 2012

Happy Birthday, Alma

Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel was born on this day in 1879. As her first husband did not exactly encourage her compositional activities, her beautiful songs have never been as well known as they deserve to be. Here is Thomas Hampson singing the top-notch Die stille Stadt, on a poem by Richard Dehmel.



Meanwhile, don't miss Gustav's Symphony No.6 at the Proms on Sunday: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is here, with Riccardo Chailly at their helm. Book here.

For those requiring a little bit of do-lighten-up-there-Gus, here is another tribute to Alma - from Tom Lehrer.