Mahler 5 pre-concert thoughts

It’s the morning of our Mahler 5 concert, and, predictably, I’ve been too busy to blog for the last few days as we’ve been putting the program together. We had a good dress rehearsal last night, and I think we’re in good shape for the performance.

It’s always interesting how much you learn and adapt as a conductor during rehearsals for a piece like this, even when you know it well. I have re-thought a few tempos- some because it turned out we could be more daring, others because what worked in my head didn’t groove with the band, but they’re all small adjustments. Still, it’s funny how fast you can, and MUST, recalibrate when you hear the feedback from the orchestra. You may have been hearing something in your head at a certain tempo for months or years, but if it sounds wrong in the room, you’ve got to change in an instant and make the new, right tempo your own.

I came to an important semantic understanding about how I talk about the Scherzo. In my blog post about the tempo the other day, I talked about the importance of the opening feeling like a landler, in three, and not a waltz, in one. It quickly became clear to me that “in three” isn’t exactly right- after a partial run through that felt very wooden and sluggish, I suggested to the players that we try to feel the landler in terms of impulses. Mahler’s constantly varying and playing with groupings of beats, some impulses last one beat only, others two, others a whole bar, and some last three beats across a bar-line. As soon as the players stopped counting “one-two-three, one-two-three” and started counting “one-one-two, one-two-one, two-one-one” or whatever, the movement started to sparkle.

Anyway- we conductors tend to think in terms of flexibility when we accompany soloists, but it’s just as important in purely orchestral pieces, maybe more so. All the research and theorizing and analysis is just a framework. Once you given an upbeat, you have to set aside your prejudices and listen to what’s going on, and respond, react, encourage or adapt as needed.

I’m feeling pretty tired, but nowhere near as tired as the Mahler 2 concert, when I had four rehearsals the day before the concert (this year I had three, which makes a big difference). More importantly, we have a stronger team and better principals in many sections that we did for prior Mahler projects, which limits transferance, which is what really sucks the life out of one. Still, I expect to be wrung out after the show and exhausted tomorrow. I’ll try to sleep on the plane- I’m going straight from Heathrow to an SMP rehearsal when I get home. We’ll be doing Beethoven 1 and the Strauss 1st Horn Concerto. Funny how like attracts like- doing the Strauss and Mahler 5, two of the ultimate horn showcases, in back to back weeks feels like fate. But please, no puns about Ken’s week of horny concerts.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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