MCO Academy 2016

8 March 2016
Timothy Summers

Timothy Summers



The idea of ‘Diary’ doesn’t quite stand up to the scope of this project, mainly because it’s difficult to make small notes on Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.

Mahler wrote that the first movement is supposed to take up the question of whether there’s life after death. ‘Epic’ would be an understatement. It’s got a parade of the walking dead. It’s got a mid-life crisis of sorts, with a back-story of Judaism, Catholicism, and conversion in 19th-century Vienna. It’s also got offstage trumpets and drums; a large choir with a mysterious entry in a flat-crushed key; five minutes pause between the first and second movements so that the piece can die… and then come back to life, going on literally (or literarily, at least) into eternity. And that’s just the text of it.

The context of it lay in the MCO Academy Project at the NRW Orchesterzentrum. Students from Spain, Portugal, Australia, England, Germany, Mongolia, and South Africa (anyone missing?) were redoubling our orchestra to make this madness possible. Even before the music was there for us to approach, large questions were in the air: What have we learned? What do we teach? What do we leave behind? What have we done? What can we help students to do? Questions on questions, inside of other questions. A material and immaterial mountain of topics to broach, in a dense period of time.

So we started small. Before the tutti rehearsals there were days to prepare with the students, away from the hurly-burly of the full orchestra. The students all play well, but forming an orchestra anew is not automatic.  Many of the initial issues shouldn’t even be formed in words — a group just has to play together, to see what moves well and what doesn’t. Then come the usual engineering topics: What makes a sound for a group? What does it mean to match articulations, bow placement? What makes things difficult? How do we separate what is more important from what is less important?

We ask the questions; we play; we ask; we play. In the end the questions aren’t there to be answered, they are there to be approached and clarified. Time moves forward. We play some more, until we’ve seen our way through it. A lot of our work is in finding motivic and dynamic clues from the first movement, sorting out the alternating sounds of heaven from those of struggle — the sounds which will come back to haunt us in later movements. It was a couple of days of seeking and finding and talking and making initial choices, banking them for later use, and playing it all in tune.

And then, suddenly: a Divertimento! The other part of the preparation with the strings was to study and play the Mozart Divertimento in B-flat, K. 137. It’s a very small piece: a melodrama or operatic scene at the very most. A play on five notes. It felt fairly comical compared to the ‘Resurrection’ symphony, which made it all the more lovely and efficient. The middle section of its first movement (to take a technical example) is four bars long. The festive second movement is celebratory and brief. The third movement is quizzical, like a question mark woven out of grass.

What we hoped to deal with in Mozart (seen in the broader context of the Academy) was how to form a group swiftly around a single conception. The performance the students gave at the Domicil jazz club was a pleasure to hear, for me at least. (Domicil has a great jazz stage. It turned out to be a bit small for the whole string group, but they stood up admirably, and made it a non-issue.) Also, by the way, rehearsing the divertimento made the odd pizzicato section in the second movement of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony — that section which seems an awful lot like the Deh, vieni alla finestra from Don Giovanni — just a bit closer, just a bit more of a diversion from the heavy things to come. The divertimento itself formed a sort of intermezzo in the project as a whole, because later, with the whole band, there was quite a lot of heavy work. An orchestra of a hundred and twenty is a large, heavy thing, with its own ecosystem. It needs organization, correction, attention, listening, adjustment, and immersion.

The third movement of the Mahler, in particular, is odd, and demanding to play and conceive. Mahler wrote that these middle movements were intermezzi, but what sort of intermezzo is this? It seems full of other music: Schubert (9th Symphony, Rosamunde), Mahler’s own First Symphony, perhaps a bit of ‘Eroica’… it seems confused, a Zelig-theme onto which identities can be projected. In the ‘Knaben Wunderhorn’ version of the same tune, the lyrics speak of preaching to fish, rather comic, really… but it’s shorter as a song… and this version has an enormous descent and cry of despair or terror toward its end. What kind of intermezzo is that? It goes on and on and brings a horror great enough that the last movement revives its sound to announce a coming apocalypse. What do you do with this odd third movement? You play it. You find the odd modulations in your fingers, you seek points of rest, you listen close, you follow, you fall.

And once it’s done, you begin to fall upward. Upward into a strange little fourth-movement fable of deciding to take a path toward God and eternity. It’s very beautiful — so much so that you half-expect to see a unicorn and a rainbow at its end. The soloist sings beautifully. But its simplicity is confounding. What’s also confounding is that the narrator is being dissuaded from going to heaven by a little Angel. He goes anyway.

Then it all comes to an end. Everything comes to an end. After three shows in NRW (Dortmund, Essen and Köln) the project comes to an end. Each theater requires adjustment for the offstage trumpets and drums, which rumble and thunder in the distance to herald our daily end-of-days parade. This takes quite a lot of rehearsal time, there’s no way around it. Daniel is conducting with ever-greater probity and precision, directing the theatrics, coaxing the choir higher. The dotted rhythm which fell down a scale in the first movement now rises in the last, desperate recitatives are overcome in favor of choral fantasy and ecstasy. And it is finished. Scharf aufgerissen is our final instruction.

There was a party for the participants afterward, upstairs in the Philharmonie. It’s very nice up there. The lamps are huge globes, always surprisingly enormous, humorously planetary. There was a very good buffet. The students took pictures to take home and post in the social ether. We met, talked about what happened, how it was, how to meet again. There was broccoli, there was wine. One wonders what memories of it will remain. Hard to know… memory will make its own decisions, perhaps reinforced and reawakened by later meetings.

One last question sticks in my mind, like a riddle: why does the choral entry — when they sing ‘auferstehen’ —why does that sound so much like Brahms’ Lullaby, Op. 49, No. 4? Are we supposed to wake from death or be lulled to sleep?

This is the guy we’re named for, this Gustav Mahler. What a curious musician he must have been.