Reading done. Now, rehearse!

The March 26 rehearsal brought us to the end of the “read it down” phase. We attended to movements 4 and 5, the ones with a vocal element. #4 is the song movement, a setting of a text from Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” for mezzo-soprano. A movement of deep mystery, it’s the first use of textures for vocal settings that Mahler employed for the rest of his career. It’s also an early example of Mahler’s rhythmic declamation that has puzzled conductors since. The rhythms in melodic lines are so speech-like, that ordinary notation just doesn’t cut it. “OK, now in this bar, I beat the quarter triplet, then a half note, so there are four uneven beats, then I beat in quarters against the quarter triplet, but with and extra upbeat at the end……”. The 5th movement the first time through is pretty empty w/o the women’s and boys’ voices, but is still such adorable and sweet music.

OK, a break, then back to the top! This movement is all either a slow march or a fast one, and that does simplify things. “Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In” was Mahler’s original title. We are constantly, to borrow a Python phrase, “marchin’ hup and down the square!”.  Yet within that rhythmic regularity is much strangeness and wildness. Weird little nature noises abound (Mahler’s instruction in the oboe part is “like a Nature noise”)  and they have to sound weird, not beautiful. I always have to stress the element of the grotesque in Mahler to young musicians, something they take to with delight once they figure that out. There is also, in the quiet dirge-like marches, much precise and delicate playing to do—all the lower brass, woodwinds and timpani play a muffled military drum rudiment, and it must sound like one, as must the low cello twitch that follows immediately. I could beat it like a march, but the ensemble here needs to from within the players. That we have yet to achieve.

Laying the foundation

In putting together a work this large and complex, the first step is to show everyone the basic shape of the architecture, and to look at things from a high altitude. Once doesn’t see or even worry about detail at these opening reading rehearsals, and it can take a but of self-discipline to NOT stop and fix things that have gone astray. So one plows ahead, and the only real rehearsing you do is to repeat things, just to give everyone a second crack at them. The quality of the orchestra often shows in how much better it gets just on the second try, which in PUO’s case is often considerable.

For a symphony of this size, it will take us two, plus a piece of a third, rehearsals to get through it in this manner. As of this writing (March 26) we are close to the end of this process, and will now circle back to the beginning today.

We got started at the end of the last concert cycle. The orchestra’s first encounter was Monday March 3. We looked at the outer movements, the two longest ones. No. 1 is a vast tone-poem in itself, a 35 minute depiction of raw nature, the clash of elements, planets, primal forces, raucous marches that ends in a shout of joy. The 6th movement is a long, passionate adagio, and one of the most beautiful and moving slow movements ever written, standing with those of Beethoven and Bruckner. The reading-down went well, as both movements, despite their size, are fairly straightforward in the playing.

What everyone found out was that one of the shorter and most listenable movements, the second movement Tempo di Minuetto (a minuet? Really?), is absolutely the hardest one to make sound and put together. It’s not correct to say that Mahler wrote only symphonies and songs, and no chamber music. He wrote tons of chamber music—it’s just all embedded in the symphonies. It’s just spread over a lot of floor space, and involves anywhere from two to a dozen musicians. This movement Mahler once titled “What the flowers in the meadow tell me”. Although he later withdrew all titles, they are instructive as to the character of the music. If ever the sight of an early summer alpine meadow filled with wildflowers could be expressed in sound, here it is. Full of the most delicate, lace-like tracery of different shadings, it is as packed with layers of notes as the meadow is with colors. Also, the notes themselves are hard, often virtuosic. To boot, it’s full of sudden shifts in tempos. We got it put together very roughly, but that was about it. There is much work to do in clarifying and prioritizing the different layers, and it requires chamber-music sensitivity from the musicians. But often a soloist finds they are sharing a phrase with someone fifty feet away! How do you listen, balance, and breath together?

The following movement, No. 3, by contrast almost plays itself (that is, after the musicians put the note in their fingers and learn where they fit in).  This is the most folk-like music in the symphony, and is populated with bird-calls. Mahler’s title was “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”—again, very instructive as to the character one needs to find. It has the luxury of very few tempo changes, which always complicate matters. (Whatever is hard is even harder when you have to alter the tempo at the same time.) It’s fun music to play. There is an overall character marking of “Grob!”—“Coarse!” in the parts, and all can really let it fly without restraint. There also is perhaps the most beautiful and longest trumpet solo in the symphonic repertory embedded in the movement about halfway through. Some commentators have heard in the lyrical trumpet the first voice of humanity in the plant/animal menagerie. Donald Mitchell’s observation always made sense to me, though—the appearance of the trumpet meant to Mahler the arrival of a divine presence. There is such love and gentle sweetness in this music, as if to say that underneath all the raucousness and even savagery of Nature is a loving divinity. Our senior first trumpet, Nicolas Crowell, played it with great beauty and security, and that at his first rehearsal! Showed serious preparation.

Mahler at Princeton

The Princeton University Orchestra has now performed seven (all but nos. 7, 8 and 10) of the 9 ½ Mahler symphonies since 1978 (my second year here), plus three of the major orchestral song cycles. (That includes Das Lied von der Erde, which was considered by Mahler a symphony in disguise that went unnumbered, so as to avoid his superstition about the number 9.) So it’s fair to say that I am a Mahler hardcore. A number of them we’ve done more than once- 1, 2, 3, and 4, and I am chomping to do repeats of the others before I shuffle off this mortal coil. There is no other music like this. As Alex Ross has pointed out, Mahler’s symphonies are both addressed to a universal audience, and deeply intimate and personally revealing at the same time. “Love letters to the human race,” was his exquisite phrase. More personal reflections on Mahler to come in a later entry.

Mahler’s Third Symphony in D minor/major has a place in the Guinness Book as the Longest Symphony in the Standard Repertory. It clocks in at anywhere from 90 to 100 minutes—not long for a movie, but immense for a symphonic work. It’s not the largest orchestra quite (see his Symphony No. 8) but still gobbles up plenty of acreage on the stage—close to the size of a Wagner “Ring” orchestra. Because of that it’s not the most performed, but remains one of the most beloved, along with its immediate predecessor, the “Resurrection”. These earlier “Wunderhorn” symphonies (so called because Mahler was then obsessed with a collection of German folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn)  are quickly approachable by performer and listener alike. The material and character reflects the folk-like quality of these texts, so many of which Mahler set in both these symphonies and a separate song cycle. In other words, you get one great and singable tune after another!

Finally I must add that I recognize I am one of the lucky ones. There are many conductors at the college level, and even some at the professional orchestra level, who will not come near a Mahler symphony—let alone the longest one—in their careers. The wonderful instrument in front of me just gets better and better. This will be my third crack at Mahler 3—the first one was 22 years ago, the second 11. And hey, maybe I might almost get it right this time!


This blog will track the experience from my particular perspective (“This backward man, this view obstructer”) of the process of building, from the ground up, a performance, with gifted, but very busy students, of a long and complex symphonic work. I’ve been asked, not infrequently, by interested audience members about this process, especially with students, and I’ve even given talks on it. So perhaps this topic may be of interest to any who have ever wondered about how an orchestra and conductor arrive at the public part, the concert where it all just seems to happen. The answer to that question is, brick by brick. I’ll here try to describe the bricks, and how they are laid.