This was no "ordinary" event! When Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Mark-Anthony Turnage and Mahler at the Barbican, a statement was being made, of much wider significance than the concert itself. Consider the context. Though he formally becomes the LSO's Music Director later this year, their association goes way back. Rattle is perhaps the greatest mover and shaker that British music has experienced since Sir Henry Wood. His whole life has been dedicated to a love of music that goes beyond conducting, and reaches all aspects of cultural experience.
This concert was mega-profile for many reasons. This was the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Remembering 'in memoriam Evan Scofield' , a joint commission between the LSO, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Turnage is one of the great British composers of our time, and also international, given his long association with the US and his interest in jazz. Remembering was written about a promising young man whose life was cut short by cancer at the age of only 25. Before he died, however, Scofield asked that those who survived him might have the adventures he missed out on. By scattering his ashes, those who loved him could travel with him where he could not have otherwise gone: imagination transcending the annihilation of death. A metaphor for creativity, whose results live beyond their maker.
|Rattle and Turnage, when they were young|
It was in context with Turnage's Remembering that the Mahler 6th performance which followed can be appreciated. Audiences are used to listening from recordings, but musicians hear from the experience of concert performance. Rattle has been conducting Mahler for forty years, and was, indeed, instrumental in bringing Mahler to widespread public attention in this country. The LSO have also been playing Mahler since way back, under numerous different conductors. On this occasion, Rattle and the LSO approached Mahler through the prism of Turnage's Remembering, which being new, would have taken more rehearsal and study time.
This "Tragic" was tragic, but also non-tragic. The hammerblow didn't cut him short – yet – and he went on to greater heights. Andante-Scherzo worked well in this performance, reinforcing the idea of memory. The "Alma Theme" represents happiness, summer, nature, all those good things that make life worth living. When the chill descends, the iciness is all the more poignant, having looked back on what will not come again. A beautifully poised andante, the LSO playing with a tenderness that takes more skill tio achieve than big, noisy outbursts. If music can be as sublime as this, it can never be extinguished, it lives on forever, whatever happens to the individuals playing it at any given point in time. Thus the grotesque absurdity of death which the Scherzo represents is but a setback on a longer journey. The fierce driving passages, and the wailing brass give way to a macabre dance,and eventually to much sparer figures from which the Alma theme can be perceived, before the screams start again. The Finale didn't feel depressing, but why should it have to? I liked the punch with which Rattle and the LSO concluded : more defiance than defeat. Things are not alright when someone dies, but if you know your Mahler, you know that the end is not the end.
Last week, Rattle and the LSO announced plans for a future which gives prominence to new British music. Given that London might miss out on a world-class concert hall, and that Paris and Berlin might supplant London as a centre for excellence, focusing on British music might be compensation, up to a point. This season at the Barbican sees several premieres of new British work, Turnage's Remembering being the high-profile first. But whether our politicians like it or not, classical music is a European thing, a culture of such richness and depth that it would be churlish to blank it out in favour of insularity. As Rattle also said last week, the point is that London concert halls just don't have the capacity to do good music justice. It's not just a question of acoustics. At the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall, players are squashed together like sardines. What the public doesn't see is that backstage working conditions aren't up to scratch, either. Read my pieces on why we need a world class concert hall in London HERE.
This concert was also the first full concert-length live broadcast by the London Symphony Orchestra, which has done podcasts before but nothing quite as high profile as this. Through the Digital Concert Hall. which originated in the Rattle era, the Berliner Philharmoniker reaches audiences anywhere, breaking down insularity, benefiting all who care about excellence. Musician-led broadcasts are a good way forward, keeping profits in house and breaking the artistic dominance of third parties. Perhaps equally important, audiences get to listen the way musicians listen, through whole concerts and in context. Listen to the Rattle LSO Turnage Mahler concert on medici tv and on the LSO YouTube channel (which flopped out for part of the live broadcast).