Monday, August 8, 2011

Mahler in Bellingham

There is something very special about hearing young musicians play. Not jaded by “experience”, young people can sometimes bring freshness and excitement to even very familiar repertoire.

Such was the case yesterday at the final concert of the Marrowstone Summer Music Festival, based on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham. This is a two-week festival in which young musicians from both the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada participate in coaching, masterclasses, rehearsals, culminating in performances of both chamber and orchestral music.

There were two full-sized orchestras that played yesterday – a Concert Orchestra made up of younger and less experienced players, and a Festival Orchestra made up of pre-college musicians with more performing experience. In the first half of the concert, the Concert Orchestra gave exciting performances of Brahms's very familiar and justly popular Academic Festival Overture, and Benjamin Brittien’s less familiar but nonetheless beautiful Symphonic Suite from his neglected opera Gloriana. I would judge the Britten to have been more successful than the Brahms. Conductor Ryan Dudenbostel brought incredible energy and excitement to the Brahms, but failed to gage the many climaxes within the relatively short piece. This was unfortunately not helped by the very resonant acoustic of the university’s Performing Arts Centre, and this made for a very loud performance. In the Britten, the conductor was able to bring out more of the many subtle shades of colours to the four sections of this very beautiful suite.

It is difficult to imagine that audiences in Gustav Mahler’s day found his symphonies largely incomprehensible. Today, performances of Mahler’s nine symphonies are inevitably considered as “events” by both orchestral players and audience. The Festival Orchestra’s performance of the composer’s first symphony was extremely successful. Conductor Stephen Rogers Radcliffe had obviously thought carefully about the music, and led the young artists in a highly polished and exciting performance of Mahler’s first symphonic opus. The musicians obviously responded to the kaleidoscopic changes in colour and the angst-on-sleeve feeling of the music. From the hushed opening of the first movement to the exultant finale, musicians and conductor were one as they journeyed through Mahler’s huge orchestral canvas. Only in the second movement did I wish that Mr. Radcliffe had made more of the idiosyncratic rhythm of the ländler. Likewise, in the third movement, at letter 5 (Ziemlich langsam), the playing was perhaps a touch too straight-laced. According to Bruno Walter, Mahler’s one-time assistant, this section should be played with a degree of vulgarity. Nevertheless, this performance was a remarkable accomplishment, especially considering the relatively short (but I am sure intensive) time that the musicians had lived with this music.

Regardless of whether these young musicians would go on to a career in music, an experience such as Marrowstone is an invaluable experience in any young person’s personal and artistic growth. In today’s society, obsessed with competitive sports and popular culture, it is extremely touching to see young people with as much dedication to the arts as many others would to hockey or soccer. These young players give us hope in a future where great music remains an important part of our humanity.

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