Friday, 6 July 2012

Marion Wood rehearses Mahler's Eighth Symphony with the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra Part 2: Goethe's 'Faust' - with choir

Conductor: Marion Wood

Sunday 16th September is the date. Exeter University Great Hall is the venue.

The Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra will be in concert,

with a huge choir of local singers.

Marion Wood will be conducting.

'Symphony of a Thousand' by Gustav Mahler

In 1897, the 37 year old Gustav Mahler became Musical Director of the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Hopofer), which has been known since 1920 as the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatoper). In addition to managing the opera house and conducting, each summer Mahler would move out to Mairnigg, his villa in Carinthia overlooking the Wörthersee in southern Austria - to compose.

In 1906 he dedicated his summer recess to putting the finishing touches to his Seventh Symphony. However, as soon as he arrived at Mairnigg he felt filled with inspiration, and embarked on his greatest composition of all, the last of his works that would be performed in his lifetime, Symphony No 8.

Up until that time Mahler's compositions had become increasingly austere and uncompromising, as his inspiration switched from Arnim and Brentano's early nineteenth century collection of German songs, 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn', to the later poetry of Freidrich Rückert (published during Mahler's childhood).

Now Mahler decided to use all the resources available to create a monumental work, filled with optimism and energy, to reflect his faith in the irrepressible endurance of the human spirit. Eventually, when he had abandoned the usual scheme of four movements for a symphony, Mahler's final version of the Eighth Symphony was in two parts. The first part is based on the ninth century hymn 'Veni Creator Spiritus' composed by the Archbishop of Mainz, Rabanus Maurus. The second is based on the final scene of  Johann Goethe's 'Faust', which was published in the same year as Mahler's other great inspiration, 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn'.

He left the Vienna Opera the following year, but continued to use his contacts to build up the forces required for his great work. With the help of his colleagues, he amassed two adult choirs and a children's choir (made up of 350 students from the 'Zentral-Singschule'), eight vocal soloists and an extended orchestra with extra brass and woodwind - in particular, four bassoons and a contra-bassoon.

Despite Mahler's own reservations about whether the musicians could be prepared in time, the impressario, Emil Gutmann convinced him to give the premiere performance in 1910 at the 3,200 seat 'Neue Musik-Festhalle' in Munich. Gutmann invented the updated title of 'Symphony of a Thousand', which he thought would help boost ticket sales.

At the very first performance, on 12th September 1910, the Neue Musik-Festhalle was filled to capacity. Mahler's assistant at the Vienna Opera, Bruno Walter, had brought together eight leading soloists, three sopranos, two altos, a tenor and two basses, from all over Austria and Germany. Mahler conducted, with the assistance of 25 year old Otto Klemperer. In the audience were many great composers of the time, including Camille Saint-Saëns, Anton Webern and Richard Strauss.

Despite the rather reserved reaction to Mahler's previous symphonies, 'Symphony of a Thousand' was a sensation. That first night audience applauded Mahler for twenty minutes. Thomas Mann, the great German author (who would win the Nobel Prize in 1929), was at the premiere. When Mahler returned to his hotel he found a letter from Mann, in which Mann called him 'the man who, I believe, expresses the art of our time in its profoundest and most sacred form'. Praise indeed.

Despite its popularity, and many subsequent performances, musicians and audiences in the UK had to wait twenty years for a home-grown performance. Sir Henry Wood conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930, and put on a repeat performance just before the war. Benjamin Britten was there, loved the music, but was not at all impressed by the performance.  After the war Sir Adrian Boult conducted another broadcast performance in the Royal Albert Hall.

In 1960, the hundredth anniversary of Mahler's birth, the 'Symphony of a Thousand' returned to its Mahler's former workplace, the Vienna State Opera House, for a recorded live performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, under Dimitri Mitropoulos. Another recording was made there in 1975 under Leonard Bernstein, during which year Pierre Boulez conducted yet another recorded live perormance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Most recently, in 2010, for the 150th anniversary (and 100 years after the first performance), the BBC Proms opened with Jiří Bělohlávek of the Brno Philharmonic conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 'Symphony of a Thousand' once again.

A very impressive performance history.

However, we are still waiting for a performance of Mahler's Eighth here in the South West of England. 

Cue Marion Wood and the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra.

Marion has brought together the orchestra, with additional instrumentalists, and a very impressive choir, to prepare the first performance in the South West of Mahler's Eighth Symphony.

Over the weekend of 25th May they rehearsed 'Part 1' - the 'Veni Creator Spiritus'. The orchestra and choir worked together in the St Peter's School gym on Friday. The choir, having got the measure of the work, then rehearsed on their own until Sunday afternoon. Marion used many innovative methods to coordinate the amazing array of voices at her disposal. Starting with small groups she worked up to the full power of the massed choir. Over two days she and the choir developed a powerful, moving expression of Mahler's great work.

On Sunday afternoon the orchestra returned to the gym.

This time Marion Wood mounted her 'rostrum' (a gymnastics bench) with the added confidence of knowing that the choir members were now fully acquainted with the music they would be singing. With deft skill she controlled the orchestra so that the voices and instruments combined their sounds perfectly.

Even in the echoing gym the sound was impressive. In the University Great Hall it will be really special.

Before we can hear the full work, however, there have to be two more rehearsal weekends - one to master 'Part 2' (Goethe's 'Faust'), and then another to prepare for the full work at the Great Hall on 16th September. They will be hard at work on Part 2 this weekend (6-8 July).

Here's how things looked at the final reharsal of Part 1:

Marion Wood at St Peter's School
with the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra - and full choir
Sunday 27 May

a vast orchestra
and choir

make communication quite a challenge

the louder members
(tuba: Chris Armitage-Wells)
need personal attention

While leader Clare Smith keeps order

3/4 of the Clarion Quartet
John Welton (EMG Chairman),
Richard de la Rue, John Walthew
Trevor Ives leads the horns

tympani: Ali Board

a final consultation
Leader Clare Smith,
Director Marion Wood
and we're all set


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