How difficult is it?

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How difficult is it?

Post by Beckmesser » Sun Aug 12, 2012 11:49 am

Yesterday I attended a concert at Tanglewood presented by high school musicians attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. These young musicians come from all over the U.S. to attend the program and some come from abroad. One must submit audition recordings to be admitted to the summer program. You can imagine that the standards are very high.

The sole work on yesterday's program was Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

Now I'm sure many of you have heard high school orchestras and, to be charitable, their capabilities are generally quite limited. Well, these young musicians played their hearts out and the results were very creditable indeed. In my estimation they equaled the performance of a very good regional orchestra.

Afterwards my friend (who is not a musician but a music lover) asked if the work was really that difficult to play. Long and fatiguing he would admit but was it truly difficult? As an amateur pianist I could not provide a satisfactory answer. So, I would like to ask the orchestra musicians on CMG who have performed the Mahler symphonies, is this music difficult to play well?

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Re: How difficult is it?

Post by maestrob » Sun Aug 12, 2012 11:54 am

It's not just the playing, it's the conducting: witness the many dud recordings of Mahler symphonies out there.......good conducting makes the playing easier.
Last edited by maestrob on Sun Aug 12, 2012 12:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: How difficult is it?

Post by johnQpublic » Sun Aug 12, 2012 11:58 am

From all that I do know, all Mahler symphonies except the 1st & 4th (certain movements excepted) are quite hard. I once heard the Eastman Philharmonia play Mahler's 5th and while it was a good performance there were places that were strained.

John F
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Re: How difficult is it?

Post by John F » Sun Aug 12, 2012 12:26 pm

I'm not an orchestral musician, or a musician at all, but I've heard many recordings and live performances of the Mahler symphonies over the decades, and here are some observations.

Many of the early recordings are poorly played with lots of mistakes. Not Bruno Walter's with the New York Philharmonic, but for example the Westminster records of the 1950s with Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, which is more or less the Vienna Philharmonic. Partly this was due to the music having to be learned and perhaps in places sight-read during the recording sessions, whose time was held to a minimum, but the State Opera Orchestra is expert at giving performances with little or no rehearsal. Scherchen knew the music inside out, and he was a more than competent conductor - he literally wrote the book on conducting. I haven't listened to Jascha Horenstein's Vox recordings with the Vienna Symphony for a while, but I remember them to be untidy in places, though less so than Scherchen's. F. Charles Adler conducted the "Vienna Philharmonia Orchestra" in the 3rd and 6th, and these were easily surpassed - in the playing, if not always in interpretation - by Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic recordings a decade later. None of these were preceded by concert performances, so they give an idea of how difficult the then unfamiliar music was for orchestras to master at first encounter.

They say that today's young orchestral players, especially the strings, are more skilled and better prepared than their predecessors. They learn to play modern and contemporary music that's even more challenging to Mahler, and what's more, Mahler is now in the mainstream of classical music performance and recordings as it was not before the 1960s. They'll have heard the 6th symphony before they began rehearsing it. So the music is doubtless less difficult for them than for earlier generations. But that doesn't make it easy!

No matter how skilled and well rehearsed a youth or student orchestra may be - and I've heard some remarkable playing at Juilliard and the Manhattan School - there's more to it than playing the notes accurately and securely. Mahler's music is full of solos and other passages which need to be played expressively, with a particular character. I don't hear solo playing in school orchestras that measures up to what Bernstein's first-desk men give us in his recordings. My impression is that this comes, if it ever does, with experience and musical maturity that students don't yet have.

All this is a view from the outside. For an inside view, I'm keen to know what our musician members have to say.
John Francis

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