Following the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s triumphant sold out performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony on April 14, conductor Benjamin Zander now turns his attention to the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on Sunday, April 23 at 3pm in Symphony Hall.
A Message from Benjamin Zander:
I am beside myself with excitement about the performance of Mahler 6th on April 23rd. The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra is in staggeringly good form. And what an extraordinary experience it is to play this wrenching, hyper-emotional masterpiece with these brilliant young people. Extraordinary and, to be honest, unexpected. Among the many words that one might use to characterize the emotionally devastating Sixth one is unquestionably “adult”. A few years ago I would merely have chuckled if someone had suggested that I conduct this harrowing work with a youth orchestra. Its titanic struggles against implacable forces, the frightening darkness of some passages, these do not stem from a place that I would think—and certainly would not hope—that young people have encountered yet in their lives. But the response of the orchestra has been phenomenal. I knew that they would love its excitement and the transcendent beauty of some passages. But I was not prepared for the outpouring of passionate identification with the content of the symphony that I could hear in the playing even at the very first rehearsal. That impression was confirmed by everything that they have said and written to me about the experience of becoming immersed in the piece.
The members of the BPYO have deeply connected with the emotions in Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony and have been inspired to express their reflections in often poetic terms. The intensity of the emotions Mahler might have drawn on when composing this work is one of the orchestra’s strongest impressions:
“It is as if Mahler unhesitatingly grabs the sharpest shards of life and explodes them into riveting colors and sounds.”
“He writes for the soul. His music is based on and pours out raw emotion. Playing my first Mahler symphony is the closest I think I’ve ever come to feeling something divine or out of this world.”
“The idea that he was willing and wanting to express such deep and intense emotions for the public eye and ear is incredibly courageous.”
Equally strong are the emotions and images that the music inspires in these young players themselves:
“The privilege to rehearse and perform Mahler 6 presents an opportunity to express all of our despondency. I see it as the best possible outlet for any feelings of anguish that we may possess.”
“The image that the last movement evokes is that of Atlas, with the weight of the sky on his shoulders. Yet, while every one who listens to this symphony bears that same weight, this burden that Mahler bestows upon us is remarkably freeing.”
The emotional and expressive facets of Mahler’s music are not the only parameters to capture the minds of these musicians; they have also given close attention to the technical aspects of the score and have turned their intellects and imaginations toward the demands of Symphony No. 6.
Mitsuru Yonezaki noticed, after close study of the string parts that “some of the bowings seem impossible, which leads me to believe that they were intended to depict the struggle in his life.” She went on to suggest that the orchestra might try reconfiguring the placement of the string section to reveal the antiphonal writing she observed in Mahler’s music.
Iverson Eliopoulos, after studying the score and listening to multiple recordings, proclaimed:
“As an orchestra we are quite good at transcending the notes on the page, but this requires an extra effort from all of us […] I am willing to do whatever it takes to make this the best musical experience.”
As a result of their immersion in the emotionally rich and technically challenging world of Mahler’s symphony, members have experienced positive changes in their mood and sense of self, a transformation perhaps unique to involvement with classical music.
“Mahler means the beauty of teamwork to me. To pull off something so huge and difficult, each person in the orchestra must not only be playing their best possible, but also listening their hardest possible. We each are significant but are colossal when together and united under Mahler.”
“[One day] I walked into rehearsal in a drowsy state, wishing I could just sleep. As I played my first note, a strong E, the same excitement and adrenaline that had filled the room began to course through my body, guiding my fingers to the correct position, guiding my right arm with power and control, and guiding my mind toward the magical world of Mahler. And within a few seconds, any trace of drowsiness and laziness I had felt before completely disappeared into thin air. It was incredible!!!
If there’s one thing I can say about playing Mahler 6th, it’s that I feel a place in the world, like I have a purpose.”
David St. George, former The Boston Globe critic and a much beloved coach of the orchestra has attended every rehearsal. He spoke movingly to the whole orchestra on Saturday, urging each one of them to contact everybody they know to persuade them to come to the concert on Sunday, so that there will be no empty seats in Symphony Hall for this extraordinary experience.
Here is what he said:
“I’ve been stunned by the disparity between the crushing, devastating, annihilating maturity of this piece of music, and your youth. I made up my mind about ten years ago that I never wanted to hear this piece again. It’s too painful—it’s too horrible. And when Ben told me he was planning to program this piece, I didn’t share with him these thoughts about what I feel about it: that it is virtually intolerable. But I also found that I could hardly believe my own thoughts—that, yes, I have come to know this orchestra and come to know all of you—and as unbelievable as it is—you actually will be able to play this piece, and you will be able to play it with maturity, and understanding, and depth of feeling, and passion, and you will fully identify with its grief. It has to be, at your age, way over your heads. You may think that it’s arrogant of me to say that—but it IS. And yet, somehow, I knew you would be able to do it, and I hear you doing it, and it almost moves me to tears. This is just a rehearsal—I probably will cry in the performance, in rehearsals I do my best not to show that. Although, I don’t think I can stand it in the third movement, when it returns to E-flat major—near the end of the movement. It is so unbearably beautiful, that when I heard you do it in the last rehearsal, I couldn’t stand it, and I started crying.
I don’t know if what I’m saying is a reason for people to come, except that this is musically and humanly one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced in my entire life, and I wish the whole world could come. If people could come and hear this, and hear it with understanding, we would be making converts by the hundreds of thousands to classical music. People would be moved to the bottom of their hearts, and they would understand things that they never believed about what people in their teens can express, and feel, and know".
Our piccolo player responded on her “white sheet”:
"I was really moved by what David St. George shared with us so openly. I think it makes sense that we are able to connect with the intense feeling that Mahler expresses in this symphony. Young people haven’t learned to fear and bury their emotions the way that adults do. There is an altogether necessary sense of innocence and openness in order to connect with Mahler’s music—a sense of vulnerability needed to allow yourself to become a vessel to share what Mahler composed. I think young people have an easier time doing that than most adults. I also think that is why so many adults are drawn to our concerts, because the child inside them wants to hear the music and be a part of the experience. That’s the beauty of an orchestra - that you can not only connect a group of musicians aged 12-21, but also connect a composer who lived 100 years ago with an audience who may know nothing about classical music. It’s one of the few things in this world that connects such a wide range of people—classical music does not discriminate. It’s an honor to be part of this orchestra.
I hope that anyone reading this blog will move heaven and earth to get to Symphony Hall on Sunday April 23 at 3pm to hear these remarkable young artists portray the vast gamut of human emotion contained in Mahler’s darkest, but also arguably greatest symphony.