Mahler - and a bit about Life

Not everyone "gets" Mahler. Whether they're musicians, or not.

Some people can't spend a day without it. Remember that scene in Educating Rita, where Julie Walters is met at the door by Maureen Lipman - complete with Mahler 6's finale blaring away behind her? Indelibly etched upon my memory of childhood was the phrase "wouldn't you just DIE without Mahler?"

 

[responsive_youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaKE1ov98yo]

And then there are plenty of musicians who can't stand the stuff, avoid it like the proverbial, ask for time off the orchestral schedule whenever it's on the programme, that kind of thing. I'm most definitely not one of them. I suppose there must be people out there who are placidly indifferent to Mahler, although quite how that's possible is beyond me - Mahler is all-involving and consuming (if you're doing it right), and remaining dispassionate is, well, I just can't imagine. Mahler is like Marmite: you either love it, or you hate it.

I've just conducted two performances of the 6th symphony, and have No 5 coming up the weekend after I write. Here's a little audio-glimpse into the recent performance (a film - with some longer extracts, rehearsal, and interviews - is planned for later in the spring.)


These Mahler 6 performances were with the fantastic young musicians of Southampton University Symphony Orchestra. All 109 of them, on stage, for an 85-minute epic. What strikes me now, only days later, is how many of them feel the gaping hole in their lives, now that Mahler isn't filling it. I know this because of that eternally-accurate arbiter of fact and knowledge: people's facebook statuses. Many of them write as if they've lost something, or even someone. Gloomy and despondent. Truly a post-Mahler malaise.

Thing is, for the vast majority of them, it was their first experience playing Mahler, any Mahler. Imagine never having really heard Mahler before, let alone played any - and suddenly being hit with the ferocity of emotion that is Mahler 6. At the first rehearsal I told them that this will be a journey - and at its end there will be tears, and longing for more. Few, if any, believed me at the time, but I know how poignantly many of them will be feeling it now.

And here's the crucial point - this is only the START of the journey. There are another 9 symphonies, of course, and songs, Das Klagende Lied... In turn, Mahler will lead to Berg, Shostakovich - and over the shoulder to Bruckner. It can unlock all kinds of things. Imagine the harmonic possibilities suddenly unleashed inside a Mahler-fuelled brain... Or klangfarben, as vivid and intoxicating to a musician now as it would've been to (say) a young Schoenberg, or Bruno Walter, a century ago.

Deep down, some of the players will now be different musicians than when they began this Mahler journey. Somehow, they will approach their craft differently. And not all the members are studying music, either. Few things warm me more than reading that a medical student has listened to the entire symphony twice more in two days, and that a geographer can't wait for her next fix of Mahler. They'll flock to the Proms this summer - always plenty of Mahler there. Who knows.

It will have changed lives - only a little tiny bit, perhaps, but it all counts. This is the power of music, and of Mahler. 109 young musicians may be wandering around like lost souls right now, but it'll pass. What is most vital is that they'll remember it for the rest of their lives, no matter where they're destined, and however high they climb as musicians.


Mayhew and Marvelling Young Minds


Just recently, I was lucky enough to share the stage with the fabulous James Mayhew. Every year we work together, preparing, rehearsing and performing our incredibly successful series of Family Concerts. These are a highlight of the de Havilland Philharmonic season, attracting huge crowds - largely, but not exclusively, made up of youngsters with their parents in tow. Grown-ups come along with their kids - and end up loving it. And the children adore it too: a telltale sign of this is how quiet they are, particularly during the music. As a conductor, even with my back turned to the auditorium 99% of the time, I can always tell when an audience is really listening, deeply tuned-in to all the activities on stage. 

Undeniably the star of the show is artist, presenter and master story-teller James Mayhew. He has a quietly engaging charisma, drawing audiences into his fantastical world, whether through speech (often delivered as verse, and always adhering to the true character, plot and drama of any classical masterwork) or through those wonderful paintings.

Thanks to the technical marvels of 21st century HD-cameras, coupled with a clever technical crew and a well-appointed concert hall, James is able to paint on a massive canvas. All his work is projected super-size above us all at the back of the stage: just watch the film above to see it all in action. There's even a glimpse into the technical box, mid-concert, during our performance of Superman.

James is not only a deeply expressive, brilliant artist, but a warm, involving speaker and presenter too. Like me, he cares deeply and passionately about classical music... about its depth, colours and delivery. James and I won't compromise, abridge nor water-down any of the orchestral "classics". We feel that children, and adults, not only can but should experience a full-size symphony orchestra performing classical masterpieces. Either in their entirety, or as close as we can get. No trimming. No sanitising. No dumbing-down. 

And we trust each other implicitly. Having performed together so often, we know what works for one another. "I think we make a great team, Robin and I," says James. "He is that rare thing - a conductor with a sense of humour. The sense of fun is palpable to the audience and our concerts together are the highlight of my year." Thanks James - that's praise indeed!

He, too, is a joy to spend time with - whether talking about comic timing, brush strokes and speed of delivery on-stage... Or where he gets his sheriff's badge from:

[responsive_vimeo 121067029]

Of course, James and I don't simply play the music. All I do is rehearse it, conduct it, perform it. That's my whole (wonderful) career in a nutshell. Sometimes I speak to the crowd, introduce James, or act as a temporary stage-prop. Together we pace the concert - me syncing with him - like accompanying a good soloist. He uses verse, commentaries, little asides - whatever the drama needs, and I time the music to the cadence of his text. In turn, James times his artwork neatly and deftly with our music-making. Watch the showreel above (or any of the footage here) and you'll see this very thing in action: look at the very end of Superman, where James times the final swoosh of the superhero's flowing cape elegantly in sync with the final musical cut-off.

Classical music is the most extraordinary experience for young children and their families. If our concerts make just one youngster pick up a cello or trombone with increased fervour, or pushes a young lad or lady to revisit a half-finished composition, then the whole venture has been a success. No question. Anything that connects youngsters with their inner, musical pilot-light - making them yearn for music, to make music, to experience music - can only be a good thing. 

With the axe about to fall on music services across the UK (as I write, Bromley, Redbridge and Wiltshire are facing this - they could easily not exist by summer: what a TRAGEDY that would be) - anything which gets the power of music over to youngsters is desperately needed. We all need to work on cultivating the audiences, and musicians, instrumentalists, singers, of tomorrow. All of us need to do this, starting now. Like we mean it. With passion, integrity, and humility. I'd like to think that James and I do our little bit in this regard, but I'd love to do much more.


[layerslider id="13"]


"Working with Robin is the highlight of my year," James says. "I couldn't wish for a better colleague for this mission we both share." And I feel exactly the same. The reason we both do this is because we love what we do: getting the magic of music across to people of all ages, particularly youngsters. When we each watch the youngsters marvel at what they witness unfolding on stage, we know it's the single best drug there is, for professional musician and professional artist alike. This is why, no matter how many books James may write, and how many Mahler symphonies I may conduct, our projects together remain a cornerstone of my concert life, and of James' artistic work. And it's why both of us long to do many more - so we can see those marvelling young minds, first-hand, loving every minute of the music and the art.

And thank you James - for all our concerts together. Here's to many more to come. Long may it continue!


"Heroes & Villains" Family Concert

complete repertoire:
Copland - Billy the Kid Suite
Grieg - Peer Gynt (Morning Mood, Death of Åse, Solveig's Song, Hall of the Mountain King)
Rossini - William Tell Overture
Williams - Superman Theme


this is a waltz (honest)

So, my dear friend and collaborator James Mayhew has been doodling again. This time from the back of the hall, as we rehearsed on Thursday last week. (For more on this - at least from James's perspective - switch blog channels and read all about his Dancing Paintbrush)

I was on stage, rehearsing. Sorting things out for the de Havilland Phil concert this weekend (see flier below, featuring a very well-known pianist). There must've been an awful lot of waltzing in there somewhere, because there's a lot of waltzing in the programme. So I imagine there's a lot of waltzing in this picture, too. Stands to reason. Ok, so there might be a bit of La Mer in there too, which could just imbue his artwork with a certain aquatic quality, but I like to think that he's captured a waltz here, in all it's glory. Good on you James, and thank you - this is a truly beautiful painting!

So, it's a waltz. Perhaps. Or so I like to think.

Now - the lovely problem is that, of course, capturing a waltz in such a perfect, frozen-in-silver(-rose) kind of way such as this makes it seem so elegant, so light and so simple. Which is the way waltzes are. Or should be. Conducting them like that, hard as it is (ok: it's near impossible) is what I strive for.

But like I say, it's hard! Breathtakingly subtle. In gently trying to inflect them, to turn their myriad corners and bring their inevitable rubato to life, one can trample all over their tender shoots, or snap them completely. Yet, do nothing, and the music dies - as if killed by the dullest of routiniers. Uninspiring, unimaginative. Boring waltz-killers. There are plenty about!

And of course, as a conductor, one has to make the most musical music within a waltz-beat. In other words, in one. Make the music flow, the lines sing, the contours melt and dance - all within just one beat. One fluid motion, containing all. Can't do too much, shouldn't do too little. And you're always on a knife-edge between the two. Yet it shouldn't ever appear like that, or else, again, you'll kill the whole thing. Waltzes + fear don't mix well! I firmly believe they should be compulsory in every kind of conducting competition - not the Danse Sacrale, or some piece written yesterday, but waltzes. Plenty of them. There are, after all, plenty of them...

Well, I'm going back to nursing my inner waltz, in preparation for the concert tomorrow. I'll leave you with one of the few true masters (no, I don't mean Strauss). Please don't miss the point and think "it's nothing to do with him" and "the orchestra do that anyway"! There is truth in that, but it's far from the whole story. And if, after watching all of this, you still feel that way, then I suggest a diet of Zen koans (because they sum up the endless secret of good waltzing). Or maybe some polkas.

Oooh, and before I go, here's that flier. I'll tell you how the waltzes (not to mention the great Emperor with John Lill) go in my next post. There may even be a photo from my dressing room