Eight horns a-standing… four trumpets blazing… two timps a-thumping… and a bass solo in a minor key!
Everyone, it seems, was in Perth for Mahler 1 last week. Well, not everyone, but several Sydneysiders to differing degrees of my surprise. Two of us were on a busman’s holiday: one of the SSO horns was augmenting the WASO’s regular forces, making, according to one of them, a “Titan” horn section; I was out in the foyer explaining, among other things, how Mahler had rejected the “Titan” nickname for his First Symphony.
I love visiting Perth. The hall might look severe and unappealing from the outside, but the acoustics are so good that I wish I could bring them home in my suitcase. There is much to be said for a shoebox with masonry walls and a capacity under 2000.
The Perth Concert Hall has another advantage, rivalled only by the Sydney Opera House, and that is an ideal location for pre-concert talks. Where some venues – even quite new ones that should have known better – choose or are obliged to tuck their talks away in rooms, Perth and the Opera House have open spaces in their foyers that are large enough for the couple of hundred who attend and which also allow for the casual listener to “stumble” on a talk and so catch something of it by chance.
I won’t go on about it. I’ve already said my piece in response to another busman’s holiday earlier in the year, where I found a talk for a major concert presenter relegated to this tiny space:
Back to the concerts… Ruth Killius was performing the Bartók Viola Concerto, as she will in Sydney this week. She uses the Serly completion but enjoys the best of both worlds by lifting an idea from the more recent version by Bartók’s son Peter and Nelson Dellamaggiore. The newer version follows one of Bartók’s orchestration instructions that Tibor Serly seems to have either missed or misunderstood. It’s a nice touch: with timpani in conversation with the soloist at the very beginning, instead of Serly’s pizzicato cellos and double bass.
The matter of Mahler removing the charming Blumine movement from his First Symphony was solved by presenting it as a prelude to the concert. It’s an effective programming strategy, even if just about everybody’s doing it nowadays. Meanwhile, the uncanny parallel between the Blumine trumpet tune and the beginning of the big tune from the finale of Brahms 1 goes some way to explaining why Mahler didn’t even want this movement published.
I should admit that I’ve not been especially looking forward to the prospect of two years of Mahler on home territory. I like my Mahler in very occasional doses – since it’s impossible to have him in small doses. So preparing this talk for the WASO did me good by reminding me how astonishing the music can be. In particular, the opening of the symphony is absolute magic. It’s the kind of writing that puts the listener on the conductor’s podium; it’s like hearing a slow-motion replay in which all the precious details of the musical thinking are crystal clear. They say Mahler is a conductor’s composer; it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
This year’s visit was shorter than usual, so I didn’t get a chance to see the Perth Theatre Company production of Equus, a play that I studied in high school but have yet to see. Even more of a pity, since the reports are that this production is extremely good. But I was able to catch The Soloist, a sobering movie which, thankfully, didn’t turn on the Hollywood Happy Ending, although its (limited) depiction of professional musicians left me frowning and cringing in turn.
Anyhow, the busman’s part of the holiday is over and I’m back, attending to that chicken elbow.