It’s generally accepted that if you want an orchestra to improve, you should rehearse and perform a great deal of Haydn and Mozart. True!
However, one thing I’ve been surprised at is what an effective orchestral etude Mahler 4 is. Perhaps it’s not surprising, since stylistically it’s his most classical work, but I think there are other reasons as well.
In particular, Mahler’s dynamic and articulation requests are so detailed and unusual that it forces everyone on stage to examine and think afresh about every aspect of their playing. With every possible variety of swell, lift, accent, sforzando, diminuendo and staccato on offer, and a mark on almost every note of the piece, players can’t simply descend into habit. Everyone has to think extra hard about how they use their air or their bow, or the markings don’t happen, and then I nag them.
The natural reaction of musicians under pressure is to adopt a triage approach- it’s easy, almost automatic, to say “this is so hard, so I have to leave out those dynamics or not try so hard to make a phrase so I can play the notes in tune.”
The problem with this is it always has an affect other than the one intended. The more you do what the music demands the more aspects of the sound you are attuned to, which means your sound, your intonation and your rhythm improve. Mahler 4 takes players about as far in this direction as a piece can while still maintaining a rather transparent, classical texture.
Still, every few minutes I can see there’s someone who seems to be thinking “this marking is wrong. Mahler couldn’t have meant that.” Well, there are a number of mistakes in the parts, but odds are, whatever is causing you to wrinkle your brow in confused disdain is exactly what the great man wanted, and I can pretty much guarantee is version is cooler than yours or mine would have been.
All this, and we’re doing Haydn too!