My first Mahler

My first Mahler


norman lebrecht

November 08, 2011

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.


  • Steve says:

    Fascinating insight into your performance. How many rehearsals did you have for this?

  • Chris says:

    Thanks, Steve. I did something unusual this time and I started rehearsing the Mahler simultaneously with our first concert of the year. We typically do a new program every month but I did a few rehearsals in September while preparing a completely different program. Then starting in October we worked almost exclusively on the Mahler.

  • Grant Barnes says:

    Maestro Russell conducts two orchestras here in Southern California. His conducting the Mahler 2nd at Azusa Pacific University is described above. The other is the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA). The OCHSA orchestra is planning two major performances in 2012 in England. One is in London at Central Hall Westminister and the other in Birmingham at the Town Hall. OCHSA is bringing some American pieces like Chichester Psalms, Barber’s 1st Essay and a new piece by Michael Daugherty that OCHSA commissioned and will premiere first in Southern California. Maestro Russell is also showcasing a performance of Havergal Brian’s Symphony No. 27 (not played live since the 70s) and a new piece by forward-looking composer Tansy Davies, who recently had a piece premiered at the Last Night of the Proms.

  • Cheri Cole says:

    I played principal trumpet in this performance, and this was my first Mahler performance experience as well. My preparation for this included months of intense listening to several recordings of the piece, with the music in front of me, studying the score as it related to the trumpet parts, and listening to the piece without any study materials in front of me. I did a ton of research on Mahler and on this particular symphony to better understand Mahler’s intent and assist me with interpretation. Additionally, all of the instructions on the music are in German. Many I had not encountered previously so I had to find the meaning of all of those, which was extremely helpful. I also found many of Mahler’s program notes, which were quite helpful. All those things helped with the musical interpretation, which left me to try to conquer the physical trumpet playing challenges of playing the piece…. playing pianissimo long high notes for several measures, and then fortissimo in the next passage, then back to pianissimo etc.. most passages very exposed. This may have been the hardest orchestral piece I have ever performed.
    The piece, Mahler 2, is absolutely beautiful. Exciting, haunting, stirring, stimulating, heart-wrenching, sad, ecstatic, everything. It takes you everywhere, from questioning the meaning of life, to reflecting on lives that have passed, to wondering about death and life after death. It goes from mourning to celebration to whimsical sarcastic taunting, to celebration again, to mourning again etc. It is an emotional rollercoaster.
    The experience of contributing to a performance of Mahler 2 was special. Mahler rocks.

    • Brass Master says:

      Mr. Anonymous. I could not disagree with you more!! I thought the trumpets, particularly the principal trumpet sounded great! As Ms. Cole noted in her message, Mahler takes the trumpets from pp to fff, and I felt that these dynamics were executed with expert precision. I am a trombonist, and have played Mahler with a couple different orchestras both in the United States and in Europe..and while I have to admit, their were some things in this performance that were not perfect (it is a student ensemble), I would have to say that the performance of the trumpets, particularly the principal trumpet performance was dead on professional calibre, including dynamics, intonation, and control. I was actually wondering if the principal trumpet was a ringer from the Los Angeles area because her performance seemed to be that of a seasoned professional.

    • Brass Master says:

      To Anonymous and anyone else who has read these comments:
      I am glad I came across this blog. I could not disagree with you more, Anonymous regarding your personal evaluation of the principal trumpet (or the trumpet section for that matter). I am a trombonist, and have played Mahler with professional orchestras both in the United States and in Europe, and I have to say, that from where I was sitting, the balance of the brass, including the trumpets was exceptional. I especially was impressed with the performance of the principal trumpet. Having played this with a couple different professional orchestras, I am well aware of the difficulty of that part, and it was expertly played. I actually was wondering, while I was listening and watching if the principal trumpet player was an orchestral ringer brought in to play that part due to the difficulty, and the precision and finesse with which it was executed. My response: congratulations to you Ms. Cole for an ousttanding performance. While I would have to admit that there were some areas of the performance that resonated that of a student performance (other sections of the orchestra – it IS A STUDENT GROUP), the trumpets, particularly the principal trumpet, displayed an artistry and performance skill and musicality of a seasoned professional, including dynamics and balance.

  • Anonymous says:

    To the principal trumpet player, Cheri Cole:
    It was a wonderful performance, however, too bad you did not take note of fotississimos. Its Mahler…..trumpets should have been right up there with the french horns, not being left in the dust.

    To Chris:
    Watching you conduct was an absolutely fabulous experience. I love how you conduct with everything you’ve got. Bravo! Absolutely stunning and captivating.

    • Cheri Cole says:

      haha..Thanks for your comments, Anonymous.
      Must have been where you were sitting, Anonymous. I have gotten feedback as varied as the trumpets were too loud, to the balance was incredible in the brass, but this is the first one that didn’t hear enough trumpet.
      It is good to hear different perspectives of feedback though. With a venue like this, a church, that sometimes happens that the balance is very different depending on where you are sitting. In those cases we have to depend on the conductor’s ears, and from where he was standing the balance is what he was seeking.

  • Susanna Kwon says:

    I played cello at this Mahler 2 concert, and it was my first Mahler experience as well. I have never encountered Mahler before this performance so it was definitely a huge surprise, but a great one. I’ve never felt such a surge of emotions while playing a classical piece. Every moment and every movement was captivating and this definitely have created a desire in me to perform other Mahler symphonies.

  • Chris says:

    To Anonymous: thanks for your kind words about my conducting. I really appreciate it. I’m glad you were able to come to the performance. For the trumpets, in hearing the balance in rehearsal, I specifically asked them to bring it down a notch since it was, to my ears, overbalancing. They did exactly what I asked of them….so blame me 🙂

  • Annie Hoffman says:

    I played violin in this monster of a piece, and really enjoyed it. Mahler had originally meant close to nothing to me, until I had heard one of his symphonies performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Sydney Opera House in the summer of ’07. Needless to say, I was spellbound. I am very thankful to have been a part of performing such a beautiful piece. I had marked all over the music various parts that were my favorites, and my stand partner and I would just glance at each other each time we got to one of them and just silently relish those moments. One challenge of playing it was that it only allowed so much room to really get into the music because there are so many demanding sections that it necessitated for me to be fully engaged for the entirety of the piece. Nonetheless, I will embrace any future opportunities to play Mahler!

  • Katie says:

    I also was a cellist performing in this Mahler concert. I had heard many things before about playing Mahler’s Symphonies – things such as how one can become so emotionally invested in the piece while playing – but I didn’t really believe it at first. Little did I know how much the complexity of the piece would simply grab me, even from the starting downbeat. Not only did it make me appreciate the genius of Mahler, but also the genius of my fellow performers and that of Mr. Russell. We all worked hard together, enjoyed moments of beautiful music together, and were all shocked by the sudden timpani playing at the beginning of the third movement together. I can’t wait to see the next time a Mahler Symphony shows up in our repertoire!

  • Jaimie says:

    I played principal flute in this performance. I have played “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” before, but this was my first time to perform Mahler’s symphony. While I could recognize some of the “Mahler elements” that I was already familiar with from my previous Mahler performance, there were much more depth and intensity in this symphony, not only musically but also philosophically, than I had expected. Every rehearsal, I was able to find something new jumping out at me, even though I thought I was getting more familiar with the piece.
    Both at the dress rehearsal and at the actual concert, my eyes got teary in the last movement, and in my mind, I was going, ‘Ok, don’t cry! Don’t ruin the performance! Don’t miss the note!’
    It was quite an amazing experience for me to play Mahler’s second symphony. I thank maestro Russell and the fellow musicians of the orchestra for this powerful and unforgettable performance.

  • Anonymous II says:

    I played in the woodwind section for his performance of Mahler 2 and I will not easily forget the experience. Though I have performed other symphonies by Mahler, there is something so electric – yet subtle – about the second symphony. It is a piece of dichotomies: redemption and despair, ecstasy and emptiness, and yet the work is completely cohesive. Perhaps it is this paradox that makes Mahler’s 2nd so powerful.
    Granted, preparing the work took… well, work. And no doubt playing the piece felt like the musical equivalent to running a marathon. But, personally, the reward of playing Mahler’s 2nd extends beyond the actual performance. I am so moved by testament of the piece. Mahler captures the struggles, highs, lows, and victories of life in such as way as to create a music that empathizes with our own personal experiences. And though he carries us through four movements of tumultuous rollercoastering, Mahler ultimately leads us to triumph with fanfare and singing. Can there be any greater encouragement?

  • Janey says:

    This is a wonderful article with interesting comments. Thank you all.

  • Love Mahler says:

    I attended this performance. I have studied Mahler 2 extensively, heard a number of performances, given seminars on Mahler 2, and played it once. It is a glorious piece of music.
    For a small college, the conductor seemed to lead the group to an understanding of the piece that was projected in the performance. There were certainly technical issues..intonation in the horns, trombones and woodwinds, problems with keeping together with the off stage players, tempo speeding up in the violas and cellos..but… the spirit of the piece was certainly conveyed. An understanding of Mahler and what he meant with this piece shone through, and that, is what music is all about. I was moved by the performance. Congratulations to the Azusa Pacific Orchestra. You did a great job. Mahler is difficult and you did it.

  • Caleb Conner says:

    I played the timpani 1 part in this performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. This was my first experience with a Mahler Symphony, and I sure hope it will not be my last! I have never come across a timpani part as interesting as the one in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. I was excited to play a piece that required two timpani, especially because of the passages that were either call-and-response or simultaneous. The intensity of the part required a lot of work outside of the rehearsal on my own, and with the timpani 2 player. There were some frustrations in my personal preparations of this piece and during the concert itself, but I am happy with how everything turned out. I can easily say that having the opportunity to play this extraordinary piece has been one of the greatest experiences I have had as a college musician. I am grateful for having been apart of this journey with Professor Chris Russell and the APU Symphony Orchestra. The amount of work and emotion that went into the rehearsals and the performance will never be forgotten.

  • Robert says:

    I heard the Azusa Pacific Orchestra several years ago, and they have really improved. It is really a lot better than they used to be. I had heard some things about the school, that their orchestra was getting better, and from what I heard at this concert that is true. Before, it had seemed like all the music at this school was choral, but now it seems that has changed and the strength might be orchestra (at least in this concert). I was talking with the others that went to this concert with me, and they told me that before, the school just had teachers from a junior college, but now they are getting professional teachers. whatever it is it seems to be working.I have three kids that are going to colleges in the near future, and we are now thinking about this college.

  • Kristen says:

    I played principal oboe for this moving Mahler symphony. It was truly an experience unlike any other I have had in my history of playing orchestral music. One of the things that struck me was how difficult the piece was to put together. The technical aspects of the piece were nowhere near as challenging as the excerpts from Shostakovich’s 10th symphony that I was troubled with in my second year as an undergraduate. Still, fitting the parts together within sections and as a whole was quite daunting as well as frustrating at times. The grand unison passages in full orchestra or in smaller groups presented their difficulties in rhythm and articulation. Although I have listened to and fallen in love with many a work of Mahler, I have never performed one of his works and therefore did not realize how challenging it is to play with unity in these passages.

    One of my favorite parts of playing this symphony was in the fifth movement during one of offstage brass sections. Even before I had the opportunity to study and familiarize myself with the music, the passage simply spoke to me. I cannot explain it. The texture and sounds that Mahler created between the strings and winds against the brass and percussion had a strong affect on me every time. This passage along with many other poignant passages made our performance and the rehearsals leading up to it, quite memorable. Mahler has always been one of my favorite composers but after performing one of his pieces, I feel an even stronger connection to him. I would say that his music speaks to me on a spiritual level except that Mahler claimed atheism later in life. Nevertheless, his pieces are powerful and my first performance of Mahler’s 2nd symphony was nothing less than a night of music touched by the Lord.

  • Erick Quintanilla says:

    I played the tuba parts in the Mahler Performance at APU. I have to say that it was a first class experience playing a piece of this magnitude with the APU symphony. As a tuba player I work on many orchestral excerpts including many from Mahler’s 2nd. It was an incredible learning experience to play these excerpts in context. It is important that university students play music from as many composers as possible and when possible Mahler should be among those explored. The performance was important but not as important as the learning that occurred throughout all of the rehearsals. Mr. Russell knows this piece extremely well, as he does all the pieces he conducts, and shared many important elements and facts in regards to successfully performing this piece. I am incredibly honored to have played Mahler, at least for now, once in my life.

  • Robert says:

    I was lucky enough to be a part of this performance. This is my first year in college, at APU, and my first year as a music major. I am lucky to have been selected by audition to play in the orchestra. Working on this piece was really an enlightening and new experience for me…. VERY different than playing in a high school group for sure! I think we really made a lot of progress as we worked on this piece, and through that journey, Mahler is now one of my favorite composers. A bunch of my friends came to the concert who are not music majors, and they told me that they could feel the energy, the intensity of the music even though they are not really classical music fans. I think Mr. Russel is really a great conductor. I am honored to have played this. Thank you Gustav.