Wednesday, May 28, 2008

the CPO gets Titanic

This week at the CPO we're playing Mahler 1 with members of the Calgary Youth Symphony -- not the whole CYSO, but still enough to add extra heft to the orchestra. We have 9 basses, 11 horns, 7 oboes (!), and 2 timpanists. The low brass is one of the only non-augmented sections, but telling them that is only going to encourage them to play louder.

So far we haven't rehearsed in the hall, partly because the huge inflatable whale, shown above, was taking up that space. She was part of last week's Kids' Fest, and on Tuesday she got a sponge bath and some other maintenance done indoors. I rushed in to take a photo before they finished, but only had time to catch this dim but suggestive rear-end view.

A couple weeks ago Michael Hovnanian posted on Mahler 1 fatigue, prompting a whole slew of comments and then a follow-up response. I'm not a Mahler 1-hater personally, though that 5-minute C pedal is not one my favorite moments in music. It's certainly one of the most expansive symphonies, in terms of length, the variety of musical ideas, and of course all the Sturm und Drang of the finale.

What I find extraordinary about this symphony, though, are the moments of quirky intimacy -- like that bizarre bass solo, accompanied only by timpani, and answered by tuba, bassoon, and eventually the whole orchestra. It's a bit like crawling up inside a whale (either end) and finding a little old man with a sad story to tell. The other night Chuck played the solo in the final 3 minutes of rehearsal, with the timpani about 50 meters away, and to my ears he got the odd, plaintive expressiveness of the tune just about right. We were rehearsing in an immense Jewish temple in south Calgary, so extra schmaltz seemed appropriate.

Sounding weird is partially the point, I think -- amid all the pageantry and fanfares, it's the weird stuff that keeps me interested in Mahler. Michael praises Haitink's ability to "keep vulgarity from creeping into passages where it has no business," which is very useful for a piece which risks deafening the audience with every huge, ear-splitting climax. Just as important, though, is to get the spiky, contorted, and genuinely vulgar stuff right -- so that all those blistering, euphoric peaks have some gnarled, murky valleys to tower over.

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