United Kingdom Mahler: Sarah Fox (soprano), Rowan Hellier (mezzo-soprano), Rodolfus Choir, Thames Youth Choir, Thames Youth Orchestra/ Simon Ferris (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 29.3.2015. (JPr)
Symphony No 2 in C Minor, ‘Resurrection’
Thames Youth Orchestra was founded in 2005 and is based in South West London. It now has a permanent staff of professional musicians and comprises more than sixty young players drawn from numerous local schools. Its ethos is defined by a challenging, adventurous approach to programming, which combines well-established large-scale orchestral favourites with twentieth century rarities and new commissions. The orchestra has featured in a BBC programmes, performed regularly at London’s Cadogan Hall and played to full houses in venues across Europe. A sister orchestra, the Thames Youth Sinfonia, has been launched for players at Grades 4 and above, and Thames Youth Jazz Orchestra is a big band taking players Grades 6 and above. Now ‘Ten Years On’ the TYO welcomed back ‘40 former members who are returning to join in the anniversary celebrations, providing a powerful reminder of the life-long positive impact of high-quality orchestral music-making.’
Friends and family of the orchestra and the choruses performing – Thames Youth and Rodolfus Choirs – spent the few minutes prior to the concert often waving to or taking photos of their loved ones and although the Barbican Hall was far from full, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has certainly played to smaller numbers in the same venue. I certainly will not be dissecting such an ambitious concert as every Mahler symphony is a challenge for a professional orchestra and here we heard the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony performed by a large group of mostly school age musicians. The evident talent and commitment of an ensemble where young women were in the majority was a joy throughout the ninety-minute span of the music. (If an orchestra has ever only had two men amongst eight listed double bass players I have never seen it.)
As we shall see later, Mahler’s sister Justine wrote, ‘It was indescribable’ after the first complete performance the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony on 13 December 1895. Her brother had staked his future as a composer on this work, based on the themes of death and resurrection. Audiences of the time were not used to hearing music quite like this with clashing musical chords, so much dissonance and so many rapid tempo changes. Moreover, in places it seemed more an oratorio than a symphony. Notoriously, Mahler played the first movement to conductor Hans von Bülow who exclaimed ‘If that is still music, then I do not understand a single thing about music! Compared with this, Tristan und Isolde is a Haydn symphony’. Now of course we recognise the ‘Resurrection’ as one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire.
Looking around me when the music started ‘is this music?’ seemed the response from several of the audience, many of whom had clearly not bought the programme. If they had they would have read an illuminating essay about the symphony by John Ferris. More importantly because the conductor and TYO’s founder, Simon Ferris, is clearly an experienced educator I hope he will forgive me when I suggest he could have spent a few minutes before the start of the concert introducing the audience to the symphony and Mahler’s soundworld.
In the first movement the hero (possibly Mahler himself) who ‘died’ in his First Symphony is taken to his grave. The second movement reflects on happier past times. For the third movement, the hero no longer believes in anything and it seems that life was playing a joke on him. In the fourth, his ‘soul’ finds a sort of peace before the fifth sweeps it back to (Mahler’s) God with blaring trumpets. The singers reassure the listener with the comforting words, ‘Rise again … will you my dust, after a brief rest … You were not born for nothing!’ Mahler made it abundantly clear that he never believed in judgement when he wrote ‘The trumpets of the apocalypse ring out … And behold, it is no judgment … There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being.’
In its entirety Justine wrote of the first performance: ‘The triumph grew greater with every moment. Such enthusiasm is seen only once in a lifetime! Afterwards, I saw grown men weeping and youths falling on each other’s necks. And when the Bird of Death, hovering above the graves, utters his last, long drawn-out call there was such a deathly silence in the hall that no one seemed able to bat so much as an eyelid. And when the chorus entered, everyone gave a shuddering sigh of relief. It was indescribable!’ Mahler conducted his symphony 13 times, revealing his close attachment to it. The ‘Resurrection’ Symphony was performed in the farewell concert marking the end of his 10 years as director of the Vienna Opera. It was the first of his own works that he programmed in America (New York, 1908) and the first of his symphonies that he conducted in Paris in 1910.
Truly great performances of this symphony can generate those extreme emotional reactions in the listener and it is in no way a criticism of the Thames Youth Orchestra to say this was never going to happen during this concert, especially since the overall mood of the music as we now heard it – very surprisingly for Mahler – seemed to exult in its ability to soothe, to heal and inspire hope for the future. Aside from all that, it was a youthful (could it be anything other than this with these musicians?), unsentimental, muscular and a totally captivating performance.
Simon Ferris’s interpretation of the work was very admirable despite never entirely mining all ‘the symphony’s extreme emotional and psychological range’ he had written about in an introductory note. Of course this can only come with greater experience from the musicians – though I do not want them to become too old … too soon! The enormous funeral march seemed rather brisk though it was never unnecessarily so, nor were the lower string attacks ever rough-edged or the brass raucous … despite some not-unexpected early signs of nerves by a few of the instrumentalists. Throughout the performance the orchestra was attentive – in a way many professional ones sometimes are not – to every gesture from the conductor. As usual, there was no hope of getting the five minute pause Mahler requested between the first two movements – for an attentive audience to reflect on what it had heard – but the short pause we did get allowed the orchestra a useful opportunity to retune.
A fine other-worldly serenity ran throughout the second movement before the neuroses of the ‘what-was-it-all-for’ Scherzo where there was some genuine terror and angst portrayed in the music, particularly in the ‘cry of despair’ with the trumpets calling out impressively. Then Mahler’s vision of a life beyond took flight as Rowan Hellier’s ‘Urlicht’ cast its spell when she darkly intoned how ‘The loving God will grant me a little light, which will light me into that eternal blessed life!’ The soprano in this symphony has a thankless task and is given little to do but all credit to Sarah Fox for emerging splendidly – as Mahler’s wanted – from the chorus. No praise here can be enough for the splendid contribution of the Thames Youth Choir and Rodolfus Choir who were well-coached, refined, and sang out boldly. Maybe I have heard ‘Aufersteh’n’ equalled … but rarely surpassed.
I can use no other word than ‘spectacular’ for the entire last thirty minutes from a repeat of the outburst that closed the third movement to the final ‘resurrection’. It featured excellent off-stage trumpet calls as well as drums which were atmospherically fateful summonses to a ghostly march. On stage, the delicate beating of the side drum added to the heightened emotion before the Last Trump. Excellently paced and perfectly balanced, these powerful final passages carried a great deal of tension and gravitas. The young orchestra was always at its best during the full orchestral climaxes including the symphony’s exultant conclusion. It was to the credit of Simon Ferris and his young musicians that the finale was never ear-shattering, clearly ‘wore its heart on its sleeve’ and all suitably climatic.
For more news about Thames Youth Orchestra visit http://www.thamesyouthorchestra.co.uk/.