Trumpeter’s Perspective- Mahler 5, a solo with Smock

Mahler in Manchester

For the next few days, interested listeners can hear the Radio 3 Broadcast of Mark Elder’s performance of Mahler 5 with the Halle as part of the Mahler in Manchester festival.

Of course, Mahler 5 begins with one of the most difficult trumpet solos in the repertoire- it places quite unique musical and psychic demands on the player. I thought it might be fun to get the thoughts of two of my favorite trumpet players on this notorious solo.

James Smock has been principal trumpet of the Oregon East Symphony since 2005. In addition to leading the trumpet section for all of our Redneck Mahler concerts during my tenure there, he has been a busy soloist around the Pacific Northwest. In November of 2009, he gave the premiere of William Berry’s Cycling Music for Trumpet and Strings, and recently soloed in the Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings with the Yakima Symphony.

Of James’ playing on the OES performance of Mahler 5 last March, one of his colleagues in the orchestra said “James sounds like a cross between Maurice Murphy and Jesus.”

My first experience of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was at college. Some friends invited me to a concert and I’d never heard the piece. The opening solo immediately caught my attention (it had to – I’m a trumpet player). I bought a cd (Ricardo Chailly conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) and listened to it every day for a month.

The opening excerpt has been one of those interesting excerpts that flip-flops between being one of the best things I play and being the bane of my existence. I prepared this excerpt for years before I ever got a chance to actually perform it – I’ve spent hours in practice rooms trying to get it just right, I’ve sneaked into halls and gymnasiums to hear my sound in a big boomy space, I’ve by now heard thousands of renditions of the same solo. It’s been kind of a big deal.

It’s still for me certainly a big deal on stage.

The placement of the solo at the very beginning of the symphony is a bit daunting: you aren’t already playing the piece — you must sound the call into a void of expectant silence. You have to create the tonality yourself. No one else is playing a thing. The funereal trumpet call begins and starts again — I hear it as a poorly-muffled sob. It grows in intensity, cresting in a full blown wail, all the while retaining a martial character. It’s a lot of depth to convey in just a few seconds.

Not to mention that the solo is not played how it is written. Despite performance instructions which indicate the solo is to be “strict”, and “in measured pace”, the opening rhythm is actually to be rushed a bit (at least, that’s what Mahler seemed to have in mind – recordings of him playing this passage on the piano all sound this way). It may seem harmless enough, but to a musician who has been admonished to play exactly what’s on the page it can be problematic. And just how exactly are you supposed to choose between what he wrote and what he played?

For this solo in particular, I appreciate it when the conductor just signals my entrance, lets me play, and cues the orchestra’s entrance. Chances are good I’ve already spoken with the maestro about his concept, and we’ve come to an agreement. The extra stick-waving can be distracting.

The solo is only a few seconds long. Those few seconds seem to last a really long time; when the rest of the orchestra comes in at the phrase’s climax the feeling of familiarity rushes back, and it becomes easy to enjoy.

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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.

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5 comments on “Trumpeter’s Perspective- Mahler 5, a solo with Smock”

  1. Paul H. Muller

    Great insight. I’m a trumpet player and never played Mahler’s 5th but I have have played the 1st (including the offstage part) and I can attest to what James is saying. Mahler is always asking the trumpets to open the gates of heaven and it can be a heavy responsibility…

  2. Erik K

    I am listening to a recording of James Smock playing this solo right now, and it sounds more like a combination of Mike Sachs and Lord Ganesha to me.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    For our European readers, Mike Sachs is the principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra-

    I wanted to just mention that when we did Mahler 5 last year, I did micro-conduct this opening (James didn’t ask me not to, and said his ideas weren’t quite finalized on the subject at the time, perhaps I put him off conducting for good). I just quietly beat the pulse with my left hand- Abbado conducts it in much the same way.

    This is a big subject, but although I appreciate soloists desire to not be interfered with in a nervy solo opening, I’ve seen the beginnings of Mahler 5 or the flute solo in L’apres midi d’un faune go badly rhythmically wrong too many times with players of the highest possible standard. Also, in both those cases, it is a solo, but not a cadenza- it is an integral part of the musical structure and is material that will always be heard in tempo (and conducted) at other times.

    On a purely practical level, yes, active conducting can make a soloist feel tighter, but that’s what I am trying to avoid by just barely using the left hand. Musically, two people (conductor and soloist) can share the pressure and hopefully be reliably in the right tempo and mood.

    In the case of the Mahler, he’s asking you to balance a strict tempo with rushed triplets. Without a gentle, flexible reminder of that strict tempo, many great trumpet players will rush the silences in the opening, which really weakens the solo’s impact.

    Also, sooner or later you have to start conducting, and if you wait for the tutti, which means a sudden big gesture on the trumpet’s high note, which may well encourage the player to split. This is an issue that always comes up in my conducting workshop- how to start conducting again after not beating for a while. It sounds simple, but it is a real art, and something young conductors generally struggle with.


  4. mahler9

    Excellent comments! As for Mahler’s own piano roll of this movement, I have thought it may have only be a kind of ‘rendition’, a 19th Century kind of thing coming out of Mahler’s mood on that day, and not meant to be a 100% accurate reflection of the score. KW’s comment is spot on: the trumpet solo contains material that will be conducted and developed later. For the piece to hang together, all the thematic relationships need to be evident in performance

  5. Al moore

    Another piece which has frustrated me is the opening of “Pictures”.
    It seems simple enough, although conductors vary in tempo a lot, which can affect the comfort level with the breathing. But also the variety of ideas about style and articulation can be perplexing. I had a conductor once who pretty much wanted it slurred, but not slurred.
    It sounded as though someone was promenading in his house slippers. Many recordings have a very pronounced, marcato approach. I know each note needs a good front, and the phrase needs a sense of line and grandeur.

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