Blog 8: Mahler 9 at NEC, 2008, Next-to-last rehearsal
4/16/2008 7:52 AM
(Written on Tuesday, April 15, after reflecting on the rehearsal of Monday, April 14.)
The performance of Mahler Ninth at the New England Conservatory is tomorrow - Wednesday, April 16 - and there is much excitement all around.
The last three rehearsals have been progressively more satisfying, as the players have mastered their parts and are understanding more and more about the piece. I am very impressed with their emotional grasp and their technical accomplishment. This was a piece that used to present almost insurmountable challenges to the greatest orchestras in the world!
We played all the way through the symphony on Monday and it sounded amazing. Tomorrow, at the dress rehearsal I plan to go easy with everybody's energies and lips.
The white sheets have been full of last-minute requests to go over difficult sections that are either not together, or present intonation problems. That's what the rehearsal tomorrow will be about. Above all it will be a chance to hone the listening.
The orchestra understands the piece and it seems every member is in love with it. Some of them have confessed that playing it is one of the high-points of their musical lives. Now what remains is to calmly polish the edges and listen for the total experience of the music. Then in the evening we will let go of everything and play our hearts out at the concert.
Before the rehearsal began on Monday I spoke a few words to the orchestra about pain.
I said that we have a natural instinct to avoid pain and suffering. We have all sorts of strategies to escape its ravages - including TV, drinking, drugs. However, it is important to remember that to embrace pain is part of the fullness of being human.
I suggested that Mahler teaches us to experience deep suffering and to transform it into acceptance and love. There are two cymbal crashes in the Finale. The first is at the agonizing climax of the movement (bar 117) where the entire orchestra musters its combined power for a last desperate crisis. The music reverts to the catastrophic utterance of the first movement, with the trumpets screaming. But now, instead of the chaos of the climaxes in the first movement, the music (and the cymbal) seems to cry "Death Thou Shalt Die!" From there, it moves into the last and greatest section of affirmation and the second cymbal crash, which expresses Courage! And then on to the final Farewell and the fade out. On Monday, I felt deeply moved as I looked around the orchestra and saw the straining bodies, each experiencing their sense of loss and saying farewell in a different way. At the end the anguish, terror and despair are stripped away and the sadness is accepted. In the long fade-out Mahler casts a steadfast look back at life and fades into profound peace.
Our wonderful first cellist, Blaise, was so overcome at the end that, in his solo, he was hardly able to control his bow - it was so moving, as he abandoned his beautiful cello tone and just allowed us to experience the sorrow. I pointed out the poignant quotation from the Songs from the Death of Children in the violins in bar 164 - "Der Tag ist schoen auf Jenen Hoehn" - ("the day is beautiful on yonder hill," but the children won't ever come back) - and reminded them that Mahler never recovered from the death of his beloved, 4-year-old daughter. The numbness and purity in the string playing at the end was incredibly affecting, though not at all in the tear-jerking sense. Rather, it is that the ineffable peace which is achieved at the end points, in a strange way, towards life, not to death.
Jim Orleans, the great BSO bass player and teacher of several of the members of the bass section, who is generously playing with us in this performance wrote on his white sheet:
"M 323 and following, the people playing 1/4 notes must listen to the moving line...(and, of course, throughout).
"When we know what our colleagues have to play and how we must interact with their voices (taking their pace) and weaving our voices together - playing Mahler's Ninth seems a microcosm of life's interrelationships, both personal and universal.
"Comprehending the inter-relatedness of ALL THINGS is perhaps what Mahler's big cosmic thought here is."
What a refreshing (and inspiring) thought it is to hear a professional player of such standing speak about music this way. I hope all of the young musicians keep this sense of wonderment long into their professional lives!
Jenny Banks wrote:
"I find it really hard to express in words what Mahler 9 means to me, except to say that it makes me SO happy. I have chosen music as my life, and playing this piece is an unforgettable experience which I am so grateful for!"
"I am so involved in this symphony. I have so many thoughts and feelings. I cannot wait to let people listen to us. We are great! Thank you Mr. Zander." Yiyin Li (leader of the violas)
Thank YOU, Yiyin, for your incredible energy and passion and your exemplary leadership of your viola section. They ARE great!! I too cannot wait.
"I came to music because I wanted to have a creative voice in this world. The thing that I struggle with in our now extremely competitive world is the battle between perfection and making music. I was so happy this morning to hear you address this exact point. It's so easy to lose sight of the true goal of why we are here. To make music! I am also happy that you talked about acting the part, not just playing the music. Just because you have an instrument in your hand doesn't mean you have to be disengaged from the audience. To move the audience, you first must be moved! I thank you so much for coming to rehearsal every day and being passionate every time." Kristin Leiterman
Kristin, coming to rehearse an orchestra like NEC Philharmonia, on music like Mahler's Ninth, how could one possibly be anything BUT passionate every moment? It is one of the greatest joys of my life.
Thank you ALL for the privilege.
Best of luck for the performance! And remember, if something goes wrong, "How Fascinating!"