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.