Room swap, learning the truth

On Wednesday 4/16 we moved off the Richardson stage to make room for my colleague Gabriel Crouch and the PU Glee Club in order for them to have a little extra stage time to rehearse for the Walter Nollner Concert on Friday the 18th.  We wedged ourselves into the McAlpin Rehearsal Room in Woolworth where things are very, very tight. This happens periodically, and I have to plan carefully for what is possible to rehearse. Nothing like the full, roaring fff Mahler orchestra is possible, as we would all suffer hearing loss ( I have sometimes handed our earplugs in McAlpin). So we focussed on some sticky spots for the cello and bass sections, the very soft 4th and the light and sparkly 5th movements.

It’s always an ordeal rehearsing in McAlpin, but in many ways a useful one. The acoustic environment is about as dead as it can get, zero reverberation. It is basically impossible to make a beautiful sound in there, so it can be demoralizing. But…. unlike the luxurious acoustic spaciousness of Richardson, one can hear everything with unforgiving clarity. The place doesn’t lie about intonation and ensemble. That can be highly frustrating when you’re not used to it– but also very instructive. I heard some mistakes in parts that I must admit, with some embarrassment, I have missed with my two other forays in this symphony. It was a tough rehearsal, as we had to respond to the newly revealed little imperfections and slips. But it was most useful, and I think will have benefits.

Looking way ahead– our new orchestral rehearsal room in Music’s part of the Arts and Transit Neighborhood, to open in Fall 2017, will be more than twice the size of McAlpin. No more earplugs. And, very importantly, it will have a variable acoustic, meaning we can set it to the reverberation of Richardson OR, if we want the real truth of how together and in tune it is, we can totally deaden it, like McAlpin. All in the same rehearsal if we want.

So, I hope the truth we learned Wednesday will help set us free (to play more in tune and together)! Easter Sunday off, and on Monday begins the home stretch. I do believe we’re ready. If we concentrate from the outset, we can do this.

Two rehearsals, and OMG moments

Two long and taxing rehearsals on April 13 and 14 were big steps. Sunday was detail work, including placing the heavenly trumpet solo for the 3rd movement in the right spot. Nicolas Crowell will be….. nope, not giving it away, you have to come hear! But it will be beautiful. The whole fourth movement is progressing well, and the hard work done with the string sectionals is paying off. The treacherous 16th note pianissimo passages are gelling, with the right sound and good intonation. I’ve repeated a couple things I heard Eric Wyrick tell the first violins for everyone, about how the softer things get, the more intense the concentration must be. Inside you’re counting and screaming “ONE AND TWO AND” at the top of your inner voice, but the sound you make is of the utmost delicacy. The style is starting to sink in, so the feeling of being in a Brothers Grimm tale for Mahler’s forest is starting to emerge. Filled with strange creatures, grinning weirdly from the shadows! This is such astoundingly picturesque music.

We worked through the seemingly simply 4th movement, the beautiful mezzo solo. It’s very, very tricky, with consecutive measures beat very differently. We’ll need to work it once more before Barbara Rearick comes. This movement doesn’t float yet.

Monday was the first run-through of the massive opening movement, all 35 minutes of it. It’s something that the orchestra and the conductor both need to get under their belts well before the dress rehearsal. It just keeps coming at you and at you, through so many wild emotional states, so many lightning transitions, and nothing ever happens the same way twice. But if you do not almost lose your mind in excitement at the blazing end, well, you’re not going to get excited about anything.  And… we did it. Some details slipped, but it held together well, and is becoming more confident and convincing.

And then, the Finale. “Was mir die Liebe erzählt”, “What Love Tells Me” was Mahler’s original title of the movement. One passage in some liner notes I remember called this music “searingly beautiful”. I said a few words (hopefully appropriate) about the title and its implications, and then we played it without stopping. We had not done as much detail work on it, so I talked more than usual as we played, calling out, as I conducted, reminders: “subito piano”, “now swell”, little details that have to be remembered in the grand sweep. In an earlier post I wrote about the process of finding Mahler’s love, and meeting it with yours as you play. I’m now hearing that wonderful union blossom under my ear. Maybe what I said had a little to do with it, but it was far more likely just the natural process of repeated exposure to music of such power, and that communicates with such urgency. Resistance is futile.

Let me quote Alex Ross again. In his review of the Mahler-fest in New York a few seasons back, he said “(Mahler) is the supreme magician of orchestral spectacle, the master of the oh-my-God moment. Neuroscientists have analyzed the phenomenon of the “musical chill”—the ambiguous tremor of otherness that runs through the body when, for whatever reason, a particular sound overwhelms the reasoning mind.” He goes on to say that Mahler’s music contains dozens of these, and lists a handful. The reasoning mind is just is too puny to absorb this. For me, there are extended stretches in this finale that are long OMG moments, and they just build in intensity toward the end.

Donald Mitchell observes that instrumental families seemed to represent certain things  for Mahler: woodwinds are animals, the natural world, strings are humanity, and brass. lead by the trumpet, divinity. The finale begins with the human voice of the strings playing a deeply felt prayer, the beginning of a search for final understanding. What follows are slowly rising waves of anxious seeking, falls into despair, gathering again, seeking again. At the end, the music from the beginning is taken now by a solemn brass chorale that answers the original prayer in a tone of sublime sweetness. The last slow build arrives at a D major chord underlined by two pairs of timpani in a final slow march- D-A-D-A, pounding forward, stopping, starting again, seemingly stopped finally, then gathering for one more peal. These final notes, and the true last chord. OMG. Charles Rosen wrote that the end of the Sanctus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, with its unending waves of ascending scales starting from the bottom of the orchestra, is Beethoven’s audible image of eternity. For me, this last 50 seconds of Mahler’s Third Symphony is his similar image of a joyous Eternal. “Not sharply cut off” he instructs regarding the last chord, as if the sound should somehow continue past the end of the music, and carry us out of the hall into the night.

We touched on the second movement before we stopped, and it too has started to gell, with the complicated violin tracery in the last section now dropping into place naturally.  You can almost smell the mountain air and floral fragrance in this music.

Well, I seem to have drifted away in this one from the topic of preparation, into speaking about the music. Afraid it couldn’t be helped, this is what happens to hardcore Mahlerites. When you’re working in his music, he becomes a living presence for you, someone you have come to love– and you can’t shut up about him. I can’t promise it won’t happen again!


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.