Mahler’s Ninth is not child’s play

Mahler’s Ninth is not child’s play


norman lebrecht

August 04, 2015

Going to hear the National Youth Orchestra work on Mahler’s ninth symphony for this Saturday’s BBC Prom, I was more than a little anxious at how a group of 170 teenagers would address the composer’s struggle with death, let alone the technical complexities of that whispering finale.

I need not have feared.

The young musicians, aged 13 to 19, played with as much seriousness and application as any of the world’s great orchestras I have seen in rehearsal. The concentration on Mark Elder’s comments was absolute. The final pages of the symphony sounded like a feather on the breath of God.

Mahler himself could not have imagined it more sensitively realised.

The same seriousness and concentration was in evidence when I talked to the group about meaning in Mahler and what his music has to say about the darkest moments in our lives. I have seldom stood before a smarter, hungrier, funnier, more responsive audience – the ideal audience that lets you know where you’re going wrong before you even go there. Every question I was asked was testing and to the point. Every interaction was thought-provoking.


NL with NYO


Members of the National Youth Orchestra come from all kinds of backgrounds and every part of the country. Levels of general education were varied, so far I could tell. Only one had read Kafka, none knew their way around a paintbox. But almost all had played something by Shostakovich.

The young musicians meet three times a year for an immersive experience in a musical masterpiece. To see them explore and embrace the elusive ambiguities of the late-life preoccupations of Mahler’s Ninth was a tremendous affirmation of the work’s many-layered meanings. It was a supreme pleasure for this hard-bitten Mahler searcher.

More than a pleasure: it was a privilege.


  • Yoel Gamzou says:

    What a beautiful report… not a surprise to me, but very touching and gives hope about the future generation of musicians!! keep it up Norman!

  • Derek Castle says:

    A wonderful organization, which the ‘classical music community’ (musicians as well as concert-goers) should support as much as they can. A jewel in this country’s crown which amply demonstrates the positive side of our much decried youth. And, as NL says, orchestra membership is not limited to those of one particular background.
    After the performance at the Proms on Saturday, the orchestra is taking the Mahler to the beautiful Konźerthaus in Berlin. A terrific example of the strength of classical music in this country.