How Mahler's Fourth feels from the inside

How Mahler's Fourth feels from the inside


norman lebrecht

May 11, 2011

Members of the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, amateurs all but of very high standard, are mailing me this morning with their responses to playing Mahler’s fourth symphony for the first time. Here’s the first pair. More to follow (see below).

From Peter Nagle, cellist (and, I think, composer):

So what does a band like KSO get from playing Mahler? Well, of course there’s the satisfaction to be gained from having got our fingers round some very tricky notes and brought it all together into (I hope) a convincing performance. I thought we gave a very good account of ourselves tonight. There’s also that emotional aspect – no matter how much you may think you’ve heard it all, Mahler always seems to retain a capacity to get to you. There’s also, I think, an appreciation of the music that you get from participating that you could never get as a passive observer, and I’d like to think some of this rubs off on the audience too (who are, after all, largely our friends and so have a vested interest in us that they wouldn’t of a pro band).

But what I really want to say is that playing Mahler is great because it gives us a chance to play Lutoslawski. We got to perform a ravishing, wonderful work that was written within our own lifetimes, with a fantastic soloist in Katherine Watson. We can gush about Mahler all we like, but we need to experience him in a context like this, because then he becomes a part of a living tradition, one that can be renewed, and not just some dead 19th century guy paraded in a sonic museum. I think Mahler would have hated the idea that he might be the end of a tradition. By pairing his symphony with music of our own time we’re keeping him alive.
From Russell Keable, conductor:
Conducting amateur orchestras is one of the most exhilarating and
uplifting jobs. Wherever the players are on the ability range they can
always achieve more (than they think they can) and the process of
growth, both as individuals and as a group, is quite intoxicating. I’m
fortunate to have worked with one of the UK’s finest amateur
orchestras for most of my life. The potential within Kensington
Symphony Orchestra is quite extraordinary and many highly-experienced
soloists who have worked with us have been amazed at what this group
of people can achieve as a hobby. 

There’s one other thing about this. Every concert is an event. Every
concert is played with total passion and commitment. Not always are
all technical hurdles jumped clean but the determination to
communicate the players’ love of music-making is infectious to an

My only regret is that this huge range of amateur music making is
undervalued in the UK and often dismissed as ‘just amateur’. KSO, this
season alone, has performed really tough modern works by Adès, David
Matthews and HK Gruber. Last night we played Chantefleurs et
Chantfables, Lutoslawski’s unfairly neglected song cycle on texts by
Desnos. In our last concert of the season we’ll be playing Richard
Ayres’ (really tough for us) No.37b.

From Ariane Todes, violnist, editor of The Strad:

What does it feel like as an amateur on the inside of Mahler’s Fourth?

Well, there are moments of pure elation, a sense of time standing still – the slow movement last night was one. There’s the joy at being part of such a huge sound, of being swept up in a luscious tune (but trying not to overmilk it). Then there are moments of frustration with one’s fingers and one’s brain, for not being able to do the things that you know Russell has been reminding you about during the rehearsals and for fluffing the runs that you’ve practised so hard when you’ve managed to grab some time after work. There are also moments – dare I say it – when one’s mind goes totally AWOL and starts dissecting what happened at work.

There’s the sense of discovery – KSO is particularly special for performing challenging modern works, so that for every old friend such as the Mahler, we get to meet something new, such as Lutoslawski’s Chantefleurs et Chantfables – a slightly mad but beautiful song cycle featuring turtles and alligators, brought off impeccably by Katherine Watson last night. And no, not all of these pieces come off. Sometimes rehearsals become pure note-learning and rhythm-bashing sessions, and the audience doesn’t appreciate ‘the bit before the good piece’. Occasionally, you even end up liking the new piece more than anything else on the programme. But we’re out there, challenging ourselves, and challenging our audiences.

I think that for all of us, being in the orchestra provides a magical alternative reality to our lives as teachers, administrators, accountants, managers, parents, executives, students, writers. It would be trite to say that all the cares of our working day disappear when we start our rehearsals at 6.30 on a Thursday. They don’t. But they go out of focus a bit as we struggle with our notes, our intonation, and Russell’s perennial complaint that we don’t play in time.

I’m a somewhat erstwhile member these days – a key quality-control rule means that you can only miss one rehearsal per run and work trips mean I often miss out – but whenever I come back I see the familiar faces, catch up with the life changes, queue up for coffee and jaffa cakes, and stare up at Russell on the podium, it feels a little bit like coming home. Most of us look a little older than when I joined 15 years ago, but that’s it – we’ve grown up together. And there’s always young, fresh talent making its way through, too, to keep everyone on their toes and to keep the life cycle going.

Russell’s right when he says that amateurs are underappreciated. There are fantastic players in KSO – the strings, of course, but the wind and brass are the best I’ve come across on the amateur orchestral circuit, and many of the group could have made it professionally if they’d chosen that difficult path. Artists of the calibre of Nikolai Demidenko and Jack Liebeck, who are happy to come and play with us, must know something. But I sometimes get a sense of sniffiness in professionals towards amateurs. No, we can’t necessarily play the Tchaikovsky and Brahms violin concertos. We don’t play consistently in tune. We don’t always listen to ourselves in the objective way that professionals are taught to do. Sometimes Russell has to repeat the same point a few times before we get it. But what we do, we do with love, commitment and a certain amount of wisdom. We’re also the ones who buy the CDs, go to the concerts, and buy the nice strings and cases. The music industry has a lot to thank us for. And as a member of KSO, I feel I have a lot to be grateful for – I can have my jaffa cakes and eat them.


From Toby Deller, viola playera:

Full disclosure: I do play (viola) professionally, just a regular freelancer. I’m not paid to play in KSO, though, in fact I pay my subs just like everyone else It’s good for my continuing professional development, to use the jargon. Mostly, though, I like – really like – playing music, and my tastes are wide, and KSO goes some way to catering for that.

Another confession: Mahler 4 is one of several pieces that make me cry a bit (sometimes just thinking about them leads the tear ducts to water). I have to make a bit of an effort not to get too involved with it as I’m playing or it can be awkward reading the music. Luckily for them, the audience don’t have that problem. They are free to be moved, and hopefully some were last night. Even if not by the orchestra, then by Katherine Watson’s singing, intoxicating right from the start of the Lutoslawski.

It’s not, as one might expect, the big climaxes that set me off in Mahler 4 but the final movement. It’s so cruel – the music and text paint this picture of an untroubled paradise. At the end, you’re all relaxed and ‘Ah, that’s lovely’, until it dawns on you that it’s all make-believe, you’ve been had. You must return to an imperfect world. Not a million miles from having to go back to the office the day after playing Lutoslawski and Mahler


  • Jo Johnson says:

    Playing with Kensington Symphony Orchestra is something which I have had the privilege of doing for nearly a decade now. The amateur music scene in London (and indeed all over the UK) is huge and vibrant, and one could spend every minute of spare time engaged in some form of music making. But KSO is the one to which I have given my heart, and every time we perform together I understand why – there’s something that happens to KSO in the concert itself. Daily life takes a back seat and music comes to the fore; and a more passionate and committed bunch of people one could not hope to have to perform with.

    I think we can credit Mahler with some of the reasons for this – there’s something about his music which makes you want to put everything you’ve got into it, to perform to the best of your ability, to wring everything you can out of his fabulous climaxes. No matter how tired you are from the day job or how appalling the tube journey has been, once you’re into Mahler it all floats away. The music is challenging, it does not come easily and it requires hard work to get it right, but to an amateur group that puts in the work the rewards are tremendous.

    Our Mahler 4 may not have been technically absolutely perfect, but boy did we have a good time last night! Those swooping horn solos, the delicate cello soli in the 3rd movement opening, the floaty high bits in the 1st violins, the HUGE climaxes (which are probably still reverberating around St John’s Smith Square this morning), the 2nd movement out of tune violin solo, the beautiful singing of Katherine Watson in the final movement, the fantastically quiet double bass ending that had everyone wondering if they had stopped or not, and, on a personal level, that tricky passage of semi-quavers that has been bugging me for weeks just seemed to play itself. The audience was on its feet at the end, and my (non-musical) mum who came up from Kent specially to hear me play told me it was one of her favourite concerts this year. What more could you ask for!

    Of course it’s not only Mahler that brings out the best in KSO. As both Russell and Pete have pointed out above, what really sets the orchestra apart is its commitment to contemporary music. There is much debate about whether classical music is just dead white guys’ music, irrelevant to young people and doomed to die a death – looking around the faces of KSO members, aged from 21 to [ahem!], performing the premiere of David Matthew’s latest symphony, or a new work by Brett Dean or Joby Talbot (all of which we have done within the last 5 years) with the same commitment with which they perform Mahler, I’m reassured that we have a good few years left to enjoy it yet!

    I’m pretty drained from last night’s experience, and it’s taken me AGES to write this. How the LSO perform Mahler symphonies night after night I’ll never know. RESPECT!

  • I played with KSO for the 6 years that I lived in London and in that time introduced many of my friends to their first classical concert experiences through KSO. Many of them went on to attend concerts by London’s professional orchestras and I will never forget an Australian friend, who’s only previous live music experience was hearing the Foo Fighters, tell me what a massive fan he was of Mahler.

    My other favourite memory of the orchestra is the sheer volume of the applause that hit us after performing at the Barbican for our 50th anniversary concert. It was so instantly thunderous it almost made one want to take step backwards to regain balance.

    Despite now living near Britain’s second amateur music capital (Bristol) I have yet to find an amateur orchestra with anywhere near the same level of professionalism, range of talent and personalities, interesting programming and genial sociability. I have now started my own small mixed amateur/professional string ensemble (The Sulis Ensemble). At least half our members are recent music graduates and I hope that we can one day offer something akin to the invaluable experience and pleasure that I gained from KSO.

  • Peter Nagle says:

    You’re quite right: I am a composer, and everything I say about music is tainted by a grubby veneer of vain self-interest. Which doesn’t necessarily make me wrong. I hope you don’t mind, I’ve borrowed a sentence from you for my website; it seems to fit nicely with what Michael Finnissy said about me.

    I’d go further than Ariane: amateur musicians aren’t simply also the punters for the pro bands. The kind of economic and political landscape we inhabit is one that emphasises consumption above all. I think one of the biggest problems so-called classical music has is that it’s pushed into this mould: a professional band performs, an audience observes them performing. That audience does not participate in any way; in fact anything that might suggest involvement or reaction (such as applauding) is discouraged. The music is a product to be passively absorbed. The people all over the country who meet up every week, tune up and play together for no reason other than that they want to are resisting and subverting that model; they’re standing up for the principle that music isn’t a commodity – it’s an activity. If the professional bands are to stand any chance of avoiding the final slide in to utter irrelevance, it’s vital that this idea be kept alive, that people continue to make music, not just buy it.