We all know how the old saying goes, especially the opera critics. I should look up its origins, but the internet on this tour is shaky and patchy enough for me to not bother trying. In any case, on this five-concert tour it’s irrelevant; there are no singers of any body configuration to herald the final curtain.
In fact, in the first concert in Budapest, the only soloists on the stage are my various colleagues within the orchestra tearing through Mahler 1. Whether it’s the loneliness of Joel Quarrington’s bass solo in the third movement, the distant statements of the off stage trumpets, Chi’s kletzmer clarinet calls or the hushed rustling of the forest in that famous opening, there are moments of individual and collective beauty that require no further gilding. Although he used singers in later symphonic works, in the 1st, Mahler sings with his orchestra often in sparse textures, trimmed of all puppy fat. The opening unison A which emerges from nowhere at the start is one of those moments where the serenity of the surface is supported by furious kicking underneath. Often the quiet, calm moments require the most effort in an orchestra. Holding such an exposed note (spread over four octaves) on the strings, for so long, is almost guaranteed to bring on bow shake, and the perilous avian entries of the woodwind only get harder with repetition night after night. I’ve always thought it ironic that Mahler, a composer associated with being overblown and extravagant at times (Exhibit A: Symphony No 8), announced his arrival in the symphonic form with an almost minimalistic start. Daniel Harding paces it well and takes a long time to unroll the first movement, avoiding bombast early on in the piece, which makes a change; it’s only in the final movement when the full fury of the orchestras sound is unleashed.
“Well, I have to say it’s been a real pleasure flying you to your concerts over the last few days.” came the crackly voice over the tannoy of one of the cabin crew from our charter flights over the last few days. As they drop us off in Vilnius, it’s the last time we see them.
“I want to thank Mario for getting us tickets to see you all play last night. I have to admit that classical music isn’t my normally preferred genre, but after hearing you lot, I’m going to start going to some classical concerts.”
There was a big cheer from the orchestra.
“If you can convert me from Lady Gaga to Mahler, you can do anything!”
Another enormous cheer.
As the sweaty concert in Vilnius reaches it’s conclusion and the horn section rise from their seats for the coda, I look down to the front row and can see a girl, about 8 years old in a fancy dress with a huge grin on her face. She looks like she is struggling to sit still and unlike in a British concert hall, the surrounding adults are smiling at her enjoyment. As the final two crotchet octaves ring out into the auditorium, she leaps out of her seat and bounces up and down, clapping wildly. She is obviously having the time of her life. In the space of two days, the music of Mahler played well, with no gimmicks or tricks, and no smoke or mirrors, has opened a young girl’s eyes and turned a disco-loving air steward’s head. I’m in no doubt that there were other, less obvious conversions in concert halls around the world at the same moment. It doesn’t really matter what we wear, or what we look like, ultimately the future lies in top quality music played to the highest standards. In any case, tonight in Vilnius, as that little girl will always remember – It ain’t over until the French horns stand up.