Time of year

April 7

General review was the order of things today, touching on spots throughout the symphony. Some of it sounds good. Some of it ain’t there yet.

OK, here’s the moment that always happens every year around this time. A rehearsal comes when there are more than just the little pockets of empty chairs, but some real axle-snapping potholes, and in some bad places. All the students are under such pressure this time of year, especially of course the seniors. Every big project, academic or non-academic, is now coming to fruition. And nobody seems to be sleeping. I respect and admire the venerable institution of the Senior Thesis, and some of the work that’s done is extraordinary, occasionally world-changing. But man, does it complicate little projects like this one! And the thought always crosses my mind that maybe this is not the time of year to do Mahler symphonies, Strauss tone-poems, Daphnis, Sacre, etc.

That thought is always followed, not too much later, by a couple of counter-thoughts, and they are 1) so when else would you do the biggest pieces of the year?, and 2) Princeton students always find a way to bring it off. At least in the thirty-seven years I’ve been watching. The ride can be nail-biting for the conductor, but….. that’s the gig. And the process has the reward of watching some wonderful achievements happen in front of you, even if it’s under trying conditions.

So, we just keep moving. A Zen saying: “Eight times  down, nine times up.”

April 9

Eric Wyrick, the superb Concertmaster of the New Jersey Symphony, stopped by today to work with the first fiddles, and I just stayed off to one side to watch. Drawing from a deep well of orchestral experience, he offered both practical suggestions of fingerings, bow touch and color, and also some basic overall wisdom: use the rests to prepare for what’s coming, think about disciplined rhythm all the time, and in your mind subdivide, subdivide. Great musicians are always mindful of and care about the little components.

The basses also got worked by our fine bass teacher, Jack Hill, who has tons of Mahler experience with Ben Zander, a Mahler conductor of some note.


Finding the love

April 5

More sectional work, this time the woodwinds. As noted earlier, Mahler wrote for a large woodwind section, about the size that Wagner used for his Ring orchestra. Then writing for this large section is colorful and complex, and there are no  secondary parts. Even the third and fourth wind parts have exposed moments—nobdy is just hidden in the harmony the whole time. The PUO woodwinds have obviously figured this out—they were prepared, they concentrated, and it was a fine rehearsal.

April 6

Tutti tonight, and we got to the end of the first pass through the grotesque and beautiful 3rd movement, and the first rehearsal of the sublime, searing, radiant adagio finale. If this music does not make Mahler converts out of the uninitiated, then they are not vulnerable to his music, sadly. But its appeal must be extraordinarily universal, surely. Here is the perfect example of Alex Ross’s wonderful perception that Mahler’s symphonies are “love letters to the human race”. In his deep longing to find the divine loving presence underlying the universe, Mahler reveals his own powerful love, and envelops us in tranquility, anguish, and, finally, redemption. A great conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini I think it was, once said that the most deeply moving of all Beethoven’s music contains an urgent subtext: “Can’t you see how much I love you?” And so it is, I believe, with Mahler.

It was a good start tonight, things got better markedly with just repetition. It will take more than one or even two rehearsals for these young musicians to find their way to the right sound, to the way the music breathes, to the core of the meaning. But they will find it. You don’t devote the time and sacrifice necessary to an effort like this unless it’s backed up by plenty of love. And Mahler’s love will find theirs.


The hard stuff

April 2

We went right at the teeth of the hardest music in the symphony, the last three minutes of the 2nd movement, and the delicate passages in the third. Big and loud is always, always many times easier than soft and delicate. And when (as in the second movement) soft and delicate is comes with complex rhythms and little tempo shifts—well, that’s trouble. Mahler wrote the symphony over a three-year span in the middle 1890’s, and his language had not yet become densely chromatic (meaning dominated by half-steps) as it would later. The 3rd movement has a real folk-music flavor to it- simple, birdcall-like tunes. Mostly. But accompanying those little tweets are16th note string passages that have just enough half-steps and awkward intervals embedded in them to create real intonation problems. And it’s not like Strauss, with so many layers of notes piled on top that if something’s a little off, it can’t be heard. Mahler’s scoring is transparent. A minor finger slip = an audible “ouch!”

These movements will continue to be the most work, and there is some more time at the dentist to come. Everyone was gently reminded that there’s no getting around having to woodshed these movements, even at the busiest time of the year. Maybe that’s a good place to state, even as I prod the PUO members, that I am in constant awe of how they do all that they do, and do it so well. When that age, I wrote the book on being a slacker.

Sectionals – March 31

Faculty members Anna Lim and Jessica Thompson took the 2nd violins and violas in sectional work. Slow, painstaking dissection, nit-picking—what I always think of as going-to-the-dentist rehearsals. Not the most fun, but necessary to get the details right.

Rehearsal Update – March 30

We finished the first movement, alas with some holes—illness, thesis, exhaustion. But finish it we did, and even got about 2/3 of  the way through the very tough, chamber music-like second. The challenge for the strings here is to get the right color—“What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me” being the title, it must be transparent, delicious, like perfume. It requires that the touch on the string with the bow be exceedingly light, and that the tone not be too concentrated. (Sort of like concocting the perfect light sauce.) The Italian term for this bow technique is flautando, or floating. It also helps to play with bow a little farther out on the string, over the fingerboard. Mahler even instructs this specifically, with the German term am Griffbrett.

But happily, the ensemble started to really jell, and the sudden shifts in mood worked. With nothing but respect for the two PUOs that played this symphony before, this one has some chops and ensemble skills that I haven’t seen before.