After the lockdown ends(1), Mahler will be smaller

After the lockdown ends(1), Mahler will be smaller


norman lebrecht

April 28, 2020

The first of a short series.

Deborah Borda, president of the New York Philharmonic, is one of the first authotiries in the music world to acknowledge that, after the Covid break, it will not be business as usual. ‘I think it’s realistic, not pessimistic, to say that we will not return to what it was,’ she told Anne Midgette.

What will have to change? Well, for the rest of the year at least there will be restrictions on the number of musicians on stage and guidelines on the distance to be maintained between them.

That will mean no big symphonies, starting with Mahler.

If conductors demand the right to perform Mahler, they will have to play with reduced forces. The means are available. Arnold Schoenberg commissioned a reduction of the 4th symphony from Erwin Stein for his Society for Private Musical Performances and made a small score of his own for Das Lied von der Erde.

My friend Gilbert Kaplan, in his very last musical initiative, created a reduction of the 2nd symphony that Universal Edition put in print.

Benjamin Britten created a miniature version of the second movement of the third symphony. There are versions in progress of the 9th and 10th symphonies.

The Berlin Philharmonic will play the Stein reduction of #4 at its comeback concert this Friday.  It will have novelty value

But after that, what?

Mahler is all about physical impact. You need the full hundred – the full thousand in the eighth – to grasp that this composer intends to blow down the walls of the concert hall and reconnect the musical experience to the outside world (‘es muss alles umfassen’).

After Covid, Mahler may have to become the music of the Hollywood Bowl.

Inside the concert hall, we’ll have to do without him for  couple of years. And without Beethoven 9th, Schoenberg Gurrelieder, much of Berlioz, Bruckner, Strauss, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and more.

What that means is we’ll need to rethink the core concert repertoire from scratch.

And about time, too.

It’s an amazing opportunity.

Your thoughts?


UPDATE: After the lockdown ends(2), concerts will be shorter



  • Uzi Shalev says:

    Pandemics rise and fall. It’s their nature. Hopefully, soon enough, a matter of a few months, this will all be over, with large ensembles performing again.

    • Amos says:

      This will not be over until a safe and effective vaccine is developed. In addition, if the MOA of the 1st vaccine is generation of neutralizing Abs to external viral spike protein(s) we will need proof that COVID-19 does not mutate the sequence(s) of the outer spike protein(s) thus preventing the Abs from recognizing and neutralizing the virus. If the 1st vaccine induces CTL responses to a conserved internal viral protein then at least the 1st vaccine would still recognize and lyse cells infected with the original virus or a mutated version. Think of influenza A vaccines which only induce Abs; a new vaccine is required every year because the sequences of the HA and NA external proteins change rendering last years vaccine ineffective.

      • Ainslie says:

        Impressive. Where did you learn to speak fluent jargon?

        • Amos says:

          Thank you. School + 35 years in the lab.

        • John Borstlap says:

          How do we know whether it is fluent jargon?

          • Amos says:

            You get what you pay for! That said feel free to ask any questions i.e. doubts you have and I will do my best to address them without condescension or snide asides. I have no agenda other than trying to convey what is being worked on as clearly as I’m capable of.

          • Just saying says:

            Because it makes perfect sense. Jargon doesn’t mean “meaningless babble”, it’s simply specialized shorthand, easily understood by those who know the terms. Musicians do it all the time.

      • Jakob says:

        I agree with your first sentence, the rest is Chinese to me. It’s tough using terminology people can understand, right?

        • Amos says:

          Sorry. MOA mechanism of action; CTL cytotoxic T cells; Abs antibodies; HA hemagglutinin NA Neuraminidase.

      • Dennis says:

        Nonsense. Life cannot wait for a vaccine. And in any case there is no guarantee that a vaccine will ever be proven effective (there has never been an effective vaccine for any cornonavirus!). Even then no vaccine is 100% effective (flu vaccines is notoriously only about 50% effective). Promoting real herd immunity (which is really what a vaccine mimics) is the best way to get on with life.

        • Amos says:

          Herd immunity is the best option for social Darwinists not to mention a sure way to overwhelm every health care system known to man. Perhaps you can live with 100s of millions infected and 10s of millions dead but I can’t. The inefficiency of the Flu vaccine is due to the fact that scientists are trying to guess which strain of influenza A will emerge before the fact so that the vaccine will be available before flu season. The sequence of the COVID-19 genome has been determined so the constructs being developed are unique to the strain originally found in Wuhan and strategies being used for are varied and all cutting-edge. As I indicated above we need to hope that the virus does not mutate quickly such that what is under development is less effective against a variant of COVID-19 Wuhan. Life until a vaccine is developed would be possible if testing had not been compromised by incompetence and in one major case indifference.

        • RA says:

          Thanks for common (not-so-common) sense! Can imagine being forcibly infected with vaccine in order to return to orchestra job!

          • Amos says:

            Forcibly infected? Don’t you believe in vaccination? Were people forcibly infected with the polio vaccine, MMR for children?

      • Ramesh Nair says:

        Amos, aren’t most/all the current Covid-19 vaccines in development against the spike protein? SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 share an 82-85% genetic similarity, so that is 15-18% genetic divergence in around 18 years, which is presumably what would be expected with RNA viruses. No vaccines were developed for SARS, but are, or are in the pipeline for MERS, which might be the closest template for what might happen with the efficacy of any Covid-19 vaccines.

        • Amos says:

          Based on the publicly available info, and common sense, the spike proteins are the target. Genetic homology between COVID strains is only so useful in making predictions about the likely success of COVID-19-specific vaccines and the new candidates use different strategies. It would interesting to compare the sequence differences between the Wuhan-derived strain and what I heard was a Italy-derived strain which caused the outbreak in NY.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        “We need to wait for a vaccine”.

        Bollocks. We can not wait for a vaccine. At best it would take 12-18 months. And there is no guarantee that one will ever be found.

        Your jargon is a rather muddled explanation of the matter. But we had plenty of similar pandemics in the 19th century and it didn’t stop us performing Beethoven 9 at that time.

        Covid-19 is only mildly dangerous. In the worse hit regions it is quite likely over 20 percent of the population has already caught the virus. This means we are likely to have herd immunity in these regions in the early Autumn. [And it won’t require “millions to die…ridiculous”.]

        • Amos says:

          Your reference to taking your cue from the 19th century is telling. First, the jargon is muddled because you clearly know nothing about science. Second, herd immunity is only “effective” if 80% of the herd is infected. Third, millions will die because the % of infected individuals will quickly exceed the capacity of hospitals to treat people who under current containment policies would have been saved. Fourth, once infection rate curves are flattened adequate testing would enable the resumption of many activities until a vaccine is developed. Fifth, you know even less about vaccine development than you do about public health so your pessimism is irrelevant. Last, hopefully you represent a minority viewpoint in your country. Stay safe!

  • Adam says:

    I’m interested to see how this plays out. On the one hand, social distancing will certainly force orchestras to be more creative (if not more adventurous) in their repertoire. On the other hand, the financial strain this crisis has put on concert halls won’t allow much wiggle room for off-the-wall choices, will it? You can’t risk a low turnout when you’re strapped for cash. Then you have to ask: when things reopen, are people going to be more or less excited to attend concerts? They might be wary. There’s still tremendous doubt about when and how everything should reopen. (I know I’ll avoid concerts until I’m sure it’s safe.) But then, you might have the opposite. You might get a rush of patrons eager to see their local orchestra after months of withdrawal. I’m interested to see how it plays out. I hope it turns out well, though I have my doubts…

    • Adam says:

      Honestly, I didn’t even mention as many variables as I should have. You have to consider how long social distancing will be enforced, and when and how it’s going to be enforced. In which seasons, too. The start of the traditional concert season in autumn might coincide with a second wave. But then, it might not. If this crisis goes on upwards of one or two years, I expect to see long-term changes in repertoire choices. If it’s over by summer, probably not. I suppose orchestras will have two options: recourse to HIP proportions in the standard repertoire or a strategic retreat to the chamber orchestra genre. I suspect we’ll see a bit of both. More Mendelssohn, less Beethoven. I doubt any new composers will enter the canon in this period, but perhaps smaller boned pieces by established composers will get a hearing in lieu of Beethoven’s 5th for the umpteenth time. However this ends, though, I’m sure that music will come out on top. It always has. When has strife ever kept classical music down, after all?

      • John Borstlap says:

        New works will (have to) be evaluated on more parameters than the number of players. And most established composers put a lot of pointless noise into their works.

  • Gustavo says:

    Considering under which circumstances, for example, Shostakovich’s 7th symphony was premiered, I am still hoping that mankind will recover from this self inflicted period of collective self-pity.

    We need to remain reasonable about the residual risk of dying from (and living with) corona after the pandemic, and blare Mahler out lounder than ever before!

    • Jeff says:

      Your comment is very smart and I think alot of people alive now, young and old, have no way of realizing what humanity has lived through and how resilient we can be. Here is an interesting article on the impact of WW1 and the Spanish flu and classical music.

      • Brian v says:

        My father was a ww1 soldier also ww11 . And Spanish flu. Epidemic
        Managed to survive. I must copy him.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Something that is not talked about is how weirdly unusual the Spanish flu pandemic was. It killed a great many more people than any 19th century influenza epidemic, and moreover it particularly killed people in the age 25-40 age group. Most flu epidemics mainly kill old people (and people otherwise ill).

        Covid-19 is not really like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918; but much more like the 19th century flu pandemics. They spread quickly (the R0 number is similar to Covid-19) and mainly killed older people with pre-existing conditions. Most people had few or no symptoms. In those cases herd immunity happened when 30-50 percent of the population had caught the virus.

    • Amos says:

      You clearly understand nothing about science in general and immunology/virology/public health specifically. Ordinarily you should be allowed your ignorance is bliss viewpoint but people like you are endangering everyone else in your community and by extension the world. Save the social and Marxist-Leninist diatribe for the op-ed page and realize that millions infected and hundreds of thousands dead is the definition of a existential threat.

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        Furthermore, the Spanish influenza killed over 500 million people. Who wants that! Worse, why would you even want to become really sick, or take a chance on having a bunch of other complications. And worse than that, why would you want to spread that to someone else. It’s pretty basic stuff.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          The Spanish flu likely killed around 50 million people. And it was very different from the other 18th century and 19th century pandemics. From what we know, Covid-19 is more like 19th century flu pandemics which killed nowhere near the number of people that the Spanish flu did.

          Covid-19 is much, much less dangerous than the Spanish flu. It won’t kill anywhere near the same number of people.

          • Amos says:

            The death rate from COVID-19 will be lower because unlike you who takes your cues from the 19th and early 20th century modern science has advanced. A COVID-19 outbreak in 1918 would have resulted in far greater mortality than influenza A. Pull up the drawbridge and hide in the corner until further notice.

      • Benny H. says:

        I apologize, Amos. These people can even find the power button on a microscope.

    • MacroV says:

      This makes no sense. Yes, Shostakovich 7 was premiered in a Leningrad under seige, starvation rampant, etc.. But even those people probably wouldn’t have gathered in a hall for a concert if a bunch of them were likely carrying and could transmit a highly communicable virus.

  • Steve says:

    Does this also mean no more Beethoven? 😉

  • annnon says:

    No, no it’s all backwards.

    I’ve never, ever, seen an orchestra go into a coughing fit in between every movement.

    It’s the audience that needs reducing, not the orchestra.

    Let’s start with no patrons over 70. It’s to protect them, really, for their own good.

    • John Kelly says:

      Based on that David Geffen Hall (NYPO) would lose 80% of its audience…………as a New Yorker NOTHING is more important to me than getting back to the Met and Carnegie hall but there’s no way that’s happening till I’m vaccinated (absent some miraculous – c.f. President Lysol – cure or disappearance of the virus. Don’t see that currently.

    • Helen Wynn says:

      Baloney. I’m over 70 and do marathons. How many do “kids” under 50!

  • Anon says:

    What about the audience?
    If they also need to be socially distanced, the concert hall will only be able to accommodate 1/8 of the full amount.

  • Gustavo says:

    There is also a chamber version of “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” by Schönberg (himself):

  • Bruce says:

    I doubt anyone will notice a lack of Gurrelieders.

    As others have mentioned, it will be nice if this has an effect on audience coughers. For so many performances, it seems like the pauses between movements, or quiet spots in the music, remind half the audience that they have bronchitis; maybe now people will actually make an effort to smother their coughs instead of just shouting into their hands any time they feel like it.

    I’ve played the reduced version of Mahler 4; it was enjoyable to play, but I was told by a knowledgeable audience member that it was not “acoustically satisfying” in a big hall. (However, this knowledgeable audience member was a horn player, so he probably thought the lack of “tutti fortissimo” dynamics was a problem rather than an opportunity to lean in and listen.)

  • Alan F laherty says:

    One interesting possibility for presenting Mahler with fewer instruments would be electronic amplification of those fewer instruments. Will any ensemble be willing to give it a try?

    • John Kelly says:

      Probably not. This is not a very good idea Sir!

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Let’s not reject the idea of subtle amplification out of hand. Leopold Stokowski made many fine recordings of works for large orchestra, but recorded with reduced forces with the expectation that RCA Victor’s technicians could make it sound right to the listener. I believe even going back to his Sibelius 4th Symphony on 78s with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and into the era of his recordings with NBC, Symphony of the Air, and “His” Symphony Orchestra. Stokowski was shrewd enough, and interested enough in recording technology, to realize that if he was willing to adjust balances and compromise a little and trust in his engineers, he could thereby make recordings that otherwise might not get made.

        This is separate and apart from his using an electric cello with the Houston Symphony to give the Shostakovich 11th’s bass line more “oomph.” One of the first of the so-called “lease breaker” recordings!

        I think it is not beyond reason to hope that technology could go a long way to mask what would be missing, if it comes to this.

        But I also agree that it might be all a moot point if audience social distancing means a 1500 seat hall can only seat 300.

        As for audience coughing being scary, what is really needed is to review the repertoire and find works that can be played without pause, since experience shows the coughing comes between movements. Eliminate the pauses between movements and — ecco! — the problem is addressed. He said, smirkingly.

        • John Kelly says:

          Stoki reportedly used a device created specially by Allen Organ to double the bass lines, but you were close with the electric cello. Back in the days of 78s you can hear a sarrusophone in Marche Slave (1926). Sort of like a giant saxophone. Not great sonically but it does the job!

        • Jack says:

          Stokowski’s reduced forces recordings never did it for me. He always had superb players for those sessions, but thirty or forty just can’t be made to sound like eighty or ninety. For a time I kept those recordings in my collection, then just discarded them from lack of use.

          Long ago, I spoke with William Bell, long-time tubist of the NBC and NY Phil, about Stokowski. He said he didn’t know what it was, but every time Stokowski conducted, the whole sound of the orchestra transformed into that ‘Stokowski sound’ people talked about. Many years later, Bud Herseth said something similar. He’s one conductor I regret never having heard live in the concert hall.

        • Allen says:

          “Leopold Stokowski made many fine recordings of works for large orchestra, but recorded with reduced forces with the expectation that RCA Victor’s technicians could make it sound right to the listener.”

          Surely there’s a huge difference between using amplification for a recording which will be heard through domestic electronic equipment where the various distortions will be present anyway to varying degrees, and using amplification in a live perfomance where such distortions would normally be absent?

          I’ve yet to hear an orchestra amplified convincingly. I do recall however Ravi Shankar’s quiet solo sitar being subtly reinforced by eight Quad ESL 57 electrostatic speakers many decades ago.

  • Tanya Tintner says:

    It has become something of a meme that Bruckner’s symphonies are “large” in every way including orchestration (often lumped in with Mahler’s “large” symphonies, as here). Symphonies nos. 7–9 have an extra four horns/Wagner tubas, to be sure, and no.8 has 1–3 harps depending on your budget, but all except nos. 1 (a third flute), 8 and 9 have only double woodwind. The first three don’t even incorporate a tuba. Symphonies 4–6 use a total of 20 non-strings players; Beethoven’s Fifth uses 18. Except for no.8, which includes cymbals, there is no percussion – and we know how much stage real estate percussion can take up. Of course it would be nice to have 22 First Violins for Bruckner, but it isn’t necessary; 16, even 14, will do pretty well; the point is that the full complement of instruments is not large. Beethoven’s Ninth, by the way, uses 23 non-strings players – but presumably large choirs will not be seen on stages anytime soon.

    • Micaelo Cassetti says:

      Slightly tangentially, I find Strauss’ Metamorphosen in the string 7-tet version delightful, but then I LOVE Mozart’s k. 563, which is even smaller. Of course, the Strauss original was hardly Mahlerian in proportion. Foremost, it’s the quality of the music…
      As I have spent a couple of years retraining as a sparks, I am going to investigate the Spannung-Festival CDs (from an Art-Nouveau hydro-electric station); I’m certain they released a Mahler/Stein 4.

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    Some works better smaller. I’d always rather hear the chamber (original) version of Appalachian Spring, for example.

    Other works need visceral impact and we might have to live without live Mahler for a while – possibly a good thing, I like Mahler but feel his music has become over-played and less of an “occasion” than it was only a few decades ago.

    There are works that can visceral impact without a huge ensemble – for example some works for brass and/or percussion.

  • Tromba in F says:

    I’d be curious to see how reduced performers would work out logistically. Would an orchestra sack a portion of its players? Would it rotate players? Would it reduce salaries to part-time status? Much to consider here.

  • Harold Tucker says:

    What does the Eighth sound like through face masks?

  • minacciosa says:

    New York City is not the world; it’s not even most of America. There will be Mahler in full and all manner of large orchestral works in many other places before long. Playing Mahler in reduction is a failure of imagination.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Orchestral music does not need to have 100 players to make an effect. It is amazing how strongly a Mozart or Haydn symphony sounds if well-played. But quite some concert halls are too big for the more classical size orchestra.

    • Orin says:

      I imagine that there are many players in large orchestras who would love to play some of the smaller treasures: Bach cantatas, Handel & Vivaldi concerti grosso, Mendelssohn 12 string sonatas, works which are almost never heard any more on the usual huge programs. Variety in programming could be a benefit in disguise and surprise the audience.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I’ve heard Mahler, a lot of it, at the Hollywood Bowl: you’re better of staying home listening to a recording.

    The Kaplan “reduction” of the 2nd only cuts the orchestra down to standard size, plus a few. Still a large group.

    There are versions of The Nutcracker and other stage works with greatly reduced orchestras.

    Of course, you could go to all-string ensembles; they can play with masks! There’s so much incredible music for string orchestra and so much neglected music that could be heard.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    ==I doubt anyone will notice a lack of Gurrelieders.

    LOL – yes, it’s truly awful

  • Dennis says:

    This notion that everything from now and for all time must be based around OCD germophobia and incorporate “social distancing” is just nuts. Just forget it then. Let the orchestras just go under. Better than capitulating to mass insanity.

  • MacroV says:

    Here’s is Borda’s quote:

    “I am a real believer in [the idea that] there is nothing like going to a live concert,” Borda continues. “My prediction is that people will very much return to the live experience.” Yet even so, she says, “I think it’s realistic, not pessimistic, to say that we will not return to what it was.”

    But she didn’t provide any details about what she means. Not a mention of Mahler, etc.. No mention of size of forces, etc..

    But thanks for the link.

  • Arthur Kaptainis says:

    The Orchestre de la Francophonie/Jean-Philippe Tremblay gave the reduced Mahler 2 (Rob Mathes should also be credited) in Montreal in 2016. Fifty-six players, about 90 voices. One timp, three trumpets (the latter exiting and re-entering frequently). Went well.

  • johnny white says:

    Borda is a pompass person

  • Sisko241 says:

    If the concern is fighting the spread of the virus amongst those onstage through social distancing, then the size of the orchestra would not matter; there simply won’t be any orchestral concerts because unless you’re going to have nothing but solo recitals, duos, trios, etc., then nothing would be ‘safe’ for the players and other participants, at least not until a vaccine is found. Can orchestras, operas, ballet companies, theater companies, etc. wait for that? What in the meantime would come of their employees, musicians, dancers, singers, etc.?

    • John Borstlap says:

      There was news today that at Oxford there has been a breakthrough and that it were possible that in September a vaccin would be available.

  • Mark London says:

    If orchestras are going to play small orchestra chamber repoitoire for 2 years then don’t bother !

  • Michael Fine says:

    Leaving aside the rather important point that music should be heard as the composer intends, it is highly likely that this virus will run its course and enter the general population of mildly irritating colds long before three years she posits. Or perhaps, she plans to close her hall during the seasonal flu as well? Leaving aside the important artistic question, large scale works mean employment for extra musicians and free-lancers. Why plan for an unlikely worst when many organisations are planning to resume normal activities next season? This is an incredibly irresponsible statement, not to mention expressing an opinion about matters well beyond her expertise. Slimmed down arrangements of Mahler Symphonies or other large scale works have a certain novelty value and are interesting for ensembles not capable of performing the pieces as written but should not become the norm.

    • Amos says:

      Stick to discussing music; your scientific pronouncements have no basis in facts and are meaningless.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        You are both rude and wrong.

        Historically respiratory pandemics goes through a locality in 2-3 months and then things start returning to normal. Afterwards, the virus which causes the pandemic remains to cause a small number of cases each year but most people will have immunity, having already caught it, and it won’t spread uncontrollably. COVID-19 will almost certainly behave in the same way.

        The lockdown has “flattened the peak” so it lasts a bit longer than 2-3 months. And this is a good thing since it has stopped the health system getting overwhelmed. Nevertheless, there is a good chance that we will be close to herd immunity in the worst hit regions in the early autumn.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I prefer they not make ‘Mahler smaller’ but, instead, perform music that’s already written for smaller ensembles. There’s all those wonderful things Paul Sacher commissioned. There’s tons of chamber orchestra music that seldom gets played these days. The smaller works of Stravinsky could come back into fashion. There are lots of other options. This is the sort of ‘neo classical’ direction the world took after World War 1.

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      ==This is the sort of ‘neo classical’ direction the world took after World War 1.

      Yes – reason for example that Stravinsky wrote Soldier’s Tale

  • Joolz Gale says:

    Dear Norman, I agree with you that this is going to be an important question for the future. I’ve made arrangements of Bruckner, Strauss, Prokofiev and Shostakovich plus many others, and it can really work when repertoire and instrumentation are carefully considered and played by top musicians like Berlin’s Ensemble Mini. I’m also making a new arrangement of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder for 2021. Let me know if you’d like further info. Best wishes, Joolz

  • Gustavo says:

    This is what we may end up with.

    To be played in plague doctor costumes.

  • Tommy says:

    I don’t think this virus can haunt the world forever but for the time being, things will be different and minimized. I feel
    bad for my career musician friends.

  • Rob says:

    Mahler has already passed over and survived the 1918’s Spanish pandemic, I don’t see any problem after this emergency will be over.

  • Stephen Owades says:

    For the specific case of the New York Philharmonic, the coming season or two might be the time to go into musical hibernation and do the major rebuild of David Geffen Hall that they’ve wanted anyway. Not being able to perform for substantial audiences could be a good opportunity for the Phil.

  • Yes. Reshape, review/relisten, reimagine. We need to revisit our musical loves and lusts and provide new doorways to savor it. Nothing wrong with that. The past will reappear and in new forms as well as old. Revision. RE-VISION!!!