London Arts Orchestra – A New Beginning: The Music of Gustav Mahler


 Mahler: Zubin Varla (performer/writer), Luke D Williams (baritone), London Arts Orchestra / Edward Farmer (conductor). Christ Church Spitalfields, London, 6.2.2014. (JPr)

Mahler – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ;Symphony No.1

If you go to the website of London Arts Orchestra you will learn they were ‘founded in 2009 with the aim of making orchestral music more accessible to a wider audience … [and how they] … put a lot of thought into crafting a complete concert experience that goes beyond the music.’ They continue: ‘How can we best illuminate an interesting aspect of the piece’s history? Is there a narrative behind the music that allows us to work with actors or artists? How can we create an atmosphere in the concert hall that best allows you to enjoy that specific piece, at that specific time?’ The LAO’s players are young professionals from various London music colleges who come together several times per year to form the orchestra, in between their studies and their performances with other major professional ensembles.

To introduce Mahler to their audience they had devised an intriguing ‘Act I’ called ‘My time will come …’ when Zubin Varla attempted to portray Gustav Mahler – aided by, amongst others, the conductor, singer, pianist and five musicians. He reflected on his youth, his adoration of Richard Wagner and reminisced about why he composed his first song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (‘Songs of a Travelling Journeyman’) – and how this evolved into his First Symphony. It was dramatised using Mahler’s own words and those of his friends, contemporaries and critics and was intended to give an idea ‘of where he was going: his obsessions, his loves, his inspirations, his aspirations and his fears. The beginnings of his quest to discover what it means to be human.’ It was very intriguing and thought-provoking but – apologies to LAO – possibly a bit too intellectual and impressionistic for those who did not already know a great deal about Mahler. That the songs were the result of an unrequited love for a soprano, Johanna Richter, was not entirely clear nor – without an English translation available – would the audience have any idea (unless they knew the work intimately) what Luke D Williams was emoting about during his songs. Nevertheless, this concept seemed to be perfectly ‘in tune’ with the London Arts Orchestra’s remit to illuminate and educate those at its concerts – I wish some of our bigger national orchestras were as innovative.

Those who have read a reasonable number of my reviews will know that, given the choice of voice types, I tend towards those that ‘play to the gallery’ such as tenors, sopranos and dramatic mezzos. However, it is baritones that seem to dominate the world of Lieder singing because of the musical sensitivity of their range that seems ideal for performance of songs of love – often not reciprocated, as with Mahler – and loss. I am constantly trying to encourage people to consider his music as fundamentally ‘operatic’ and the many rather ‘precious’ interpretations of his Lieder can argue against this because it is perceived to be the necessary ‘Art’ of a type of specialised singer to internalise them and rein in their emotions as a result. I was very pleased with Luke D Williams’ overall approach although perhaps he went a little too far with his expressive voice and face to treat each song as a mini verismo aria. It was a very unique account of these over-familiar songs and a very worthy attempt. ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (‘I Have a Gleaming Knife’) was sung with clenched teeth ferocity and an almost psychopathic fervour. Williams did very well but as the last lines of the final song descended from ‘alles’ to ‘Traum’ (‘alles, Lieb und Leid, und Welt und Traum!’) I suspected the singer might be wiser to look at some tenor repertory before he gets much older. Pianist Kristina Rokashevich and an eclectic quintet of violin, viola, cello, clarinet and timpanist provided delicate and nuanced support under the direction of Edward Farmer.

As for Varla as Gustav Mahler, I am not sure the composer was actually anything like we were shown but it was engrossing nonetheless. I envision Mahler as a gnomic figure and a cross between the physical movement of Groucho Marx and the doleful neuroses of Woody Allen, there were hints of this from Zubin Varla but I don’t think he ‘nailed it’. Actually had he fine-tuned the rather OTT Yiddish accent he employed into something more Bavarian he would have made an even better Wagner!

This was my first-ever concert at Christ Church Spitalfields, designer Nicholas Hawksmoor’s eighteenth-century Anglican splendour on the Commercial Road. I wondered how it would accommodate the eighty-plus musicians (mostly young women) on the roster for Mahler’s First Symphony after the interval. In fact, for me, the acoustic for such large forces is better than both St John’s Churches, either in Smith Square or at Waterloo.

Edward Farmer has been an assistant conductor to Iván Fischer, and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, and I suspect he has learnt some of his approach to Mahler from Fischer because he is a noted authority on the composer. Farmer’s Mahler was not self-indulgent and he adhered to brisk tempi throughout all the movements. I like the First Symphony when I feel – as here – that I am on a rollercoaster in Vienna’s Prater and I can indulge myself in all its thrills, spills, excitement and intense drama. There was a palpable frisson towards the end at the sight of the eight horns players (six girls!) standing to create the maelstrom in the brass that signals the end of the work; even though in my mind – because the work had not been dissected like sometimes it can be – I thought it had all sounded rather more like Richard Strauss than Mahler. This was no bad thing considering how anodyne some Mahler First Symphonies can indeed sound.

In the first movement there was an appropriate haunting spaciousness to the offstage trumpets and a rhythmic vibrancy to the ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ (one of the Wayfarer songs) main theme melody. The second movement moved ‘strongly’ (as Mahler requests) and the Ländler was bold, foot-stamping and bucolic. By contrast, the slow third movement is a funeral march where the ‘hero’ of the symphony is conveyed in triumph to his grave accompanied by material from the well-known ‘Frère Jacques/Bruder Martin’ children’s song. Here the excellent Siret Lust’s double bass led the way with some elegiacally mournful sounds. This, as well as the Klezmer band music was suitably evocative. The conductor, Edward Farmer, was admirably able to coax refined, elegant, playing from all the wonderful young talent in front of him.

The ‘engine’ of the London Arts Orchestra – the strings, winds and brass – was the equal of many fully-professional orchestras. It was the latter section that excelled in the kaleidoscopic incandescence of that ebullient, climactic, fanfare at the end of the final movement. Since I have mentioned money, I will conclude by writing that at the end of the concert Christopher White, one of the LAO’s trustees, made an appeal for funds: if you get the urge from reading this to support the LAO and their future plans you can donate money at:

Jim Pritchard

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