Listener’s Perspective- Mahler 8, just the facts

Mahler in Manchester

Hi everyone

As you know, Sunday night was Mahler 8 night in Manchester. I don’t do reviews, but I can tell readers a little about the concert, if you are content with just the facts….

Who was playing in the orchestra?

The combined forces of the BBC Philharmonic and Hallé. The orchestra was pretty evenly split between the two bands, but used a normal-sized string section. BBC Philharmonic players sat as principals in the strings, while Hallé players mostly sat principal in the winds. So, flute 1-3 were Hallé, 4 and 5 BBC Phil and so on, through the horns, where 1-4 were Hallé and 5-8 Phil. Trumpets and trombones were the exception, with the BBC’s folks playing principal. Strings alternated by stand, so the first stand of 1st violins were the BBC’s leader Yuri Torchinsky and Midori Sugiyama, the second desk was Hallé and so on.

How was the orchestra set up?

They used Sir Mark Elder’s preferred set up, familiar to Hallé subscribers. From the conductors left to right it was 1st violins, cellos, violas, 2nd violins with basses on the very back row of the stage on a riser behind the winds. This is the traditional Viennese seating and would have been what Mahler recognized. The advantages are that the antiphonal seating of the violins can create more sense of a separate identity between the 2 fiddle sections, and that the positioning of the cellos and basses, who are then facing straight out into the audience, can create a darker and more resonant string sound. However, the this effect isn’t apparent in all concert halls- in some venues, one gets more bass by simply making sure they are actually on the main floor of the stage. The BBC Phil seem to generally use the standardized modern seating with the 1st and 2nd violins next to each other, violas then cellos and the basses on the floor behind the cellos. These days, many people have become a little obsessed with seating, and many critics and conductors insist that the antiphonal seating used by Elder is the only legitimate setup for music of Mahler’s time. I used a version of that seating for most of my tenure in Oregon, and have used it many other places- I find it works better with a large string section than a small one*. However, much as I prefer it, all things being equal, in some halls the 2nd violins have much more color and presence sat on my left next to the 1sts with their f-holes facing out, and the modern setup can facilitate better blending and ensemble. It depends on the band and the hall- fortunately The Bridgewater is good enough that you sit any way you like and it will sound fab.

Where were those soloists?

In a row at the front of the stage- the four women sat to Elder’s left in front of the 1st violins with the 1st soprano next to him and the 2nd alto farthest down the line and the 3 men to his right with the tenor closest and the bass farthest away

Mater Gloriosa sat in the balcony above the stage, just next to the top of the organ. This meant we could hear her very well, but as a coup de theatre, I like having her sat out of view of most of the audience until the magic moment. I’ve even toyed with the idea of asking her to wear street clothes- imagine the effect of some completely random woman in the audience standing up and singing like an angel!

Any cancellations or replacements among the solo team?

Yes, but not many. Mater Gloriosa was the 3rd person cast in that part. I believe Anita Watson, who sang it, was only hired 24 hours before the gig. The tenor was also a replacement, Peter Hoare. The original chap withdrew for health reasons a few weeks early.

Where were the choirs?

Choir I to the left, Choir II to the right, children’s chorus in the middle

How many on stage?

About 500. Around 370 singers including the Hallé Chorus, CBSO Chorus and Children’s Chorus and another 120 or so instrumentalists.

How big a baton do you need to conduct that many people?

Literally or metaphorically? Actually, Elder, who usually uses a normal sized baton, went without for this one. My teacher almost always used a baton except in choral works with lots of counterpoint like this one or the Mozart Requiem. He felt that when dealing with all the different choral voices he liked the freedom to use either hand for cuing and beating. I don’t know if that was Sir Mark’s logic- he may have simply felt that he’d be more relaxed in such an adrenaline-intensive piece without it, or he might have lost it. Of course, he hadn’t lost his baton, but that had been a thread all week, from this ridiculous commercial for absorbent underwear which has been making the rounds-

To the pre-concert play, in which Mahler is contrived to be panicking about the loss of his baton**. I was preparing to explain noisily that conductors lose batons all the time, but never before concerts because dressing rooms are generally too small to lose anything when I was told that Mahler actually lost his baton before one of the rehearsals of the premiere of the 8th and conducted with a spoon. ***

How many mandolins?

There were three mandolin players. None of them were me. After my gentle joking about mandolin and guitar players not being great orchestra players, I should go on record as saying that in both Mahler 7 and 8, the pluckers were pretty much above criticism.

Who was listening?

All the great and good were there- I’d have preferred Mark Elder’s seat for the concert, but I was sat 3 feet from Marina Mahler, the composer’s granddaughter, and guest of honor, who couldn’t have been nicer or more interesting in what she had to say about her grandfather’s music. I can’t complain about such an evening. For me, the most memorable moment of the evening was at the dinner afterwards. Elder was saying how it is madness that we expect modern audiences not to clap at the end of Veni Creator. Peter Davison then said it was the transition into the recap that made him want to jump out of his chair, and as he described the moment I looked around and saw Mark Elder, Michael Kennedy and Peter Davison and I all making various versions of touchdown signals, raised fists and other general standardized physical signs of pure RARR!. I wasn’t the only one who took note of that moment, either.

Mahler does many things with his music, not least of which, he lets us all be kids again.

* All of the Mahler I did in Oregon was done with antiphonal violins, but when I did Mahler 1 in Feb with the WSO, I used their normal setup, which is the conventional modern one. The Ruckert Lieder/Elgar 1 concert I did in December was antiphonal. Either can work.

** In fact, at every major orchestra I’ve worked with in America, the librarian keeps an emergency baton or two on hand, so if someone can’t find their “magic wand” the show can go on. Mahler would have been spared the use of a spoon.

*** In all honesty, I’ve never been unable to find my magic wand before a concert. However, I have left home for a concert without my batons, and once had Suzanne google up a music shop while I drove to a distant city so I could pop in and buy a stick before rehearsal. I conduct often without stick- the motivation was not musical, but simply wanting to avoid the orchestra determining I was in any way flaky.

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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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5 comments on “Listener’s Perspective- Mahler 8, just the facts”

  1. Zoltan

    “Physical signs of pure RARR” is why it’s so great to listen to music home *alone*! 😉

  2. Mitch F

    “I’ve even toyed with the idea of asking her to wear street clothes- imagine the effect of some completely random woman in the audience standing up and singing like an angel!”

    That would be something! Every 8th I’ve seen has had the typical setup: a woman way up high in a balcony wing, dressed in white and spotlighted. I wonder if it wouldn’t be too distracting, though, and cause people to talk about it for the next 30 seconds or even a minute.

  3. Tom in Vermont

    Having just heard Nezet-Seguin conduct the Mahler 8 in Montreal on June 20, 2010, I can say from my all too long recording and concert going experience: you cannot hear the Mahler 8 over any recording mechanism known to man or woman. Music making on this scale is profoundly communal both in performance and in hearing. On the one hand it is impossible to perform, and on the other the miracle can happen in the flesh and spirit.

    In Montreal, Mater Gloriosa merely walked calmly on stage to deliver her lines simply and directly, and then joined the other soliosts in the final ensembles.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Tom-

    Welcome! You are absolutely right, but there is an important element of what you describe in any good live performance. I once did a performance of Crumb’s Night Music I for about 15 people where something really, really special happened. In one case you have 5 or 6 musicians and 15 listeners, in another hundreds of performers and thousands of listeners, but in both cases, those present got something you can never get from a CD. I like the stage management you describe.

    Thanks for reading and commenting

  5. Gregory Marsh

    “Mahler does many things with his music, not least of which, he lets us all be kids again.” Did he really conduct a rehearsal of this symphony with a spoon? One more thing to add to the list of things I love about the Eighth Symphony.

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