Christopher Russell last night (Monday) conducted the first Mahler symphony of his life. I asked him to jot down his thoughts immediately after. Here’s what he has sent.
Most of Chris’s performers were also playing and singing Mahler for the first time. If any would like to add impressions, please use the comment space.
Thoughts on Conducting Mahler for the First Time
By Christopher Russell
On November 6, Southern California experienced a rare thunderstorm with a sudden downpour. It seemed like the perfect prelude for a performance I was about to conduct of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony.
Since graduating from Indiana University with my conducting degree about 20 years ago, I have conducted all the Beethoven symphonies, nearly half of the symphonies each by Schubert and Shostakovich plus many, many other works from the Baroque through brand-new pieces. But until this past Sunday, there’s one composer whose music I’ve never conducted in concert before: Mahler.
I’ve always loved Mahler’s music and knew all of the symphonies by the time I was about 17. I also have heard all of them live. But programming one of them has always eluded me until now.
I am in my 4th year as the conductor of the excellent orchestra at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian university about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. We’ve done works from Beethoven 9 to Bruckner symphonies to the US premiere of a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen. But even programming Mahler took a couple of years to bring to fruition. In speaking with the conductor of our Oratorio Choir, John Sutton, we both agreed that we would like to program the 2nd Symphony but it took two years before we both felt like it was time.
With it officially “on the books”, I started to work on it this past summer. Thus I started on a unique journey in terms of studying, rehearsing and conducting a work that was unlike anything I’d done before. While I knew the piece well orally and have followed the score before, preparing it for performance is a whole different matter. First, I translated the many instructions and indications Mahler gives. I can’t tell you how many hours that took. But as I was studying it, one thing emerged that surprised me: I had naively thought that with all of the markings in there, the interpretive aspect of it would follow naturally. After all, Mahler was a conductor and he left many markings in there that are an aid to future conductors. While that was true, I was amazed at how flexible the score actually is. One of the biggest challenges for me was the many viable paths I could have taken, particularly in terms of tempo. When I thought of a passage in one tempo, it made complete sense. When I thought of it in a different tempo, it also made complete sense. In the end, I tried to choose tempi that made sense for the overall journey that Mahler takes the listener on.
Another thing that struck me in studying this symphony, and this may sound silly, but I thought “there’s a lot of notes”. What I mean by that is two things. First, every page had some sort of challenge on it either for the orchestra, for the conductor or both. Second, in a Mahler symphony, a musician can’t hide. It doesn’t matter that there are over 200 performing this symphony, each part is so vitally important to the whole. If one section or even a single player is not performing at their highest level, then the entire ensemble suffers. While that is certainly true of many other composer’s music, it is especially true with Mahler.
The orchestra is made up of gifted college students including several musicians who have played in professional orchestras in places like China, Brazil and the US and are here to earn an advanced degree. However, very few of them had played a Mahler symphony before and maybe two or three had ever played the Resurrection. Many had never even heard the piece. With me conducting this piece for the first time, this was going to be a new adventure for virtually all of us. One of the things I enjoy most about conducting a group like this is that they get to discover a masterpiece for the first time. I did spend some time in rehearsal speaking about Mahler himself, the text and a little of how he put the music together to give them a better context. In the end, their admiration of this music and this composer continually increased.
At the first rehearsal, the orchestra tore into the first movement and it was great. As a conductor, I’ve conducted so many things but it occurred to me while rehearsing this that there really is nothing like conducting Mahler. There is a visceral aspect of this music that is wholly unique, I believe, to music. While leading that first rehearsal, I did feel completely at home. I don’t feel that way with every composer (I can’t imagine any conductor that does) but with Mahler I did feel it immediately. Mahler said his symphonies encompass the world and now I see how true that is. This is music with such a range of emotion and frequently you have contrasting emotions back-to-back or even simultaneously. That presents another whole set of challenges itself. For the chorus too; John Sutton told me that he believes the chorus part for the Mahler is more rich in scope than the Beethoven 9th and that the challenges to prepare the Mahler are far greater than the Beethoven.
What was the hardest movement to put together? For me, it is no question that it was the 2nd movement. The delicacy needed in the orchestra and the fact that it is very easy to have the tempo run away from you were the biggest challenges. Plus a lot of those fast and very soft passages are tricky to play. It takes a lot of effort to make it sound effortless.
Overall rehearsals with the orchestra ranged from terrific to frustrating. All the emotions that Mahler put in the music were being lived out in one way or another in the rehearsals. The magnitude of what were trying to accomplish had, I believe, taken some orchestra members by surprise. You can’t phone in Mahler. It just won’t work. Some orchestra members told me of the frustrations they were experiencing in rehearsal and performance. This went even to the day of the concert. I have never conducted a work that elicited such an emotional response (good or bad) from the musicians. I don’t begrudge these comments at all since they clearly cared about Mahler and us performing his music. We’ve faced musical challenges before but none like this. I’m happy though that the rehearsals were fruitful and productive overall and all the players eventually did get the message that this was indeed an enormous challenge. And they rose to it brilliantly. As the concert drew closer, more and more students were telling me of their excitement in anticipation of performing it.
The performance featured over 200 performers: 90 in the orchestra and about 120 in the choir. I was more nervous than for any concert I’ve done in a long time. As I started the famous opening, I knew we had started this major journey and there was no turning back. In the end, the orchestra, chorus and soloists all performed magnificently. It truly was an honor to conduct this extraordinary work and was an unforgettable night.
Some of the players asked me earlier in the day if we could play the Mahler 3 next season. At first I told them “no way”. But after this night, I’m thinking about it.