Mahler and Judith Weir from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland

Mahler and Judith Weir: The National Youth Choir of Scotland, Quay Voices and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain; Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London 24.4.2011 (JPr)

Judith Weir: We are Shadows

Mahler: Symphony No.10 (performing version by Deryck Cooke)

I wrote some fairly extensive notes during this evening before deciding that it was all fairly critic-proof because of the sheer commitment and enjoyment of music-making by all concerned. I also remembered the happy smiling faces of the audience members around me – who often had a loved one singing in the choirs or playing in the orchestra – and this confirmed that my comments should be moderated as a result. I also read in the printed programme the appeal to the younger listeners that were surprisingly numerous for a classical concert: ‘The NYO is especially pleased to welcome other young people to tonight’s concert. We hope the music will transport you to incredible places and keep buzzing with you once you’ve left the concert hall’. When the average age attending similar concerts to this at the Royal Festival Hall must be about 50 this is a consummation devoutly to be wished! However, whether the rather inaccessible challenge of the song-cycle of Judith Weir and Mahler’s final thoughts is the music to do this I am not too sure.

Judith Weir has said about We are Shadows that it ‘is a series of reflections on the impermanence of life. Although the text refers to death many times, I have tried to avoid the familiar mood and shape of the Christian Requiem; nevertheless, the opening poem (first movement) with its metaphor of a graveyard described as a deserted inn, has a touch of the Dies Irae about it. Two further movements (2 and 5) take their texts from Scottish graveyard inscriptions; but these are sardonic and dry-eyed, rather than devout. The bulk of the text (movements 3 and 4) comes from the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (Zhuang-zi, in modern transliteration) who lived three centuries before Christ. Chuang Tzu takes a sceptical view of the division between life and death, and is ecstatic about the possibilities of life lived in other dimensions than the earthly one we know. While composing the score, I kept in mind the example of Buddhist funeral music, which is often cheerful and lively. On completing the piece, one other influence seemed evident to me; that of Bach’s cantatas, particularly in the movements for children’s chorus (2 and 5), and in the final movement (6) where for the first time, all the performers are heard together.’

We are Shadows was composed for the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Junior Youth Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. Together they first performed the work, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, in 2000, as part of the final ‘Towards the Millennium’ season. The texts and music represents clearly this decidedly oriental slant on death; Weir’s style is dramatic, tonal and ‘in your face’ and employs naturally-inflected verbal rhythms, and unusual sounds from the orchestra including the string players rapping on their instruments and the brass clicking their valves. Weir does not want to over-sentimentalise death and the work seems to include some lovely passages. For me the combined forces of 300 on the platform – National Youth Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Scotland and Quay Voices – overwhelmed the meaning of the music. I suspect there should have been more irony and cynicism to the singing of words such as ‘If life were a thing that money could buy, the poor could not live and the rich would not die’ that the innocent angelic sounds of the Quay Voices could not deliver.

Perhaps it is heresy for someone as involved with Mahler as me to suggest that I am finding successive hearings of the completed Tenth Symphony causing me some concern and I do not really love it as wholeheartedly as his other works. It is well known that Mahler left the movements 1 and 3 almost fully orchestrated and rest notated in short score but any completion or ‘performing version’ is pure guess work and probably far removed from what Mahler would have wanted us to hear. Although the version by Deryck Cooke, Berthold Goldschmidt and Matthews brothers retains much of the economy of orchestration and clarity of ideas from the material Mahler left us, it might not be the only answer; because the world needs as much of Mahler’s music that there is as possible, it might be worth giving an outing to the other attempts by Mazzetti Jr, Wheeler or Carpenter for a change to see if they have anything to say to us.

I write that because James Murphy’s programme note about the symphony asked ‘What does it mean? … does Mahler perhaps solve Schoenberg’s “riddle of the world”? The beauty, as with all classical music, is that nobody but you gets to decide’. It would be great if the NYO didn’t entirely leave it just to the music but perhaps found a conductor willing to introduce what we were about to hear, as it would increase the audience’s understanding enormously. This symphony seems to take us on a harrowing journey from despair to a final, positive, though – extremely fragile – resolution. It would always demand a great conductor and a great orchestra to bring it off successfully.

That the NYO – never an ensemble to shy away from a challenge – should attempt something so technically demanding with just ten days’ rehearsal is not a surprise given their past programmes, including an unforgettable Mahler ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ at the Proms under Rattle. However this new generation of young musicians, an ensemble of 160+ including 10 double basses, 8 trombones, 8 trumpets, 10 horns and 5 harps and a huge body of strings, somewhat – once again – overwhelmed Mahler’s alternating bouts of stoicism, despair or vitality. Despite Vasily Petrenko’s best efforts the performance seemed to lose its way a couple of times but was at its best as the drama of the second Scherzo led into the Finale s apocalyptic drum-strokes. This was handled very well and the trajectory towards the final bitter-sweet conclusion was managed with the instinctive feel required by the work’s harrowing and spare musical language. The orchestra responded here with playing of typical raw youthful energy but also some suitably mature eloquence and refinement. However, overall, it was a performance that was never sufficiently emotionally engaging or ultimately uplifting: hardly a surprise when the average age of those involved is about 17 – how can you comprehend death when life for you only seems to have just begun?

Jim Pritchard