Mahler at its finest

Somtow Sucharitkul conducts the combined youth orchestra, at Mahisorn Hall in SCB Plaza, last Thursday. Photo courtesy of Somtow Sucharitkul

On July 6 at Mahisorn Hall in SCB Plaza, Somtow Sucharitkul conducted a combined youth orchestra in a memorable performance of Symphony No.5 by Gustav Mahler (who was born on July 7, 157 years ago).

The two orchestras, Thailand’s own Siam Sinfonietta and a guest youth orchestra from Changhua in Taiwan, joined forces to deliver a powerful performance under Maestro Somtow’s baton. For the four previous days, the players in the orchestra — ranging from 12-25 — were busy rehearsing and fine-tuning their interpretation at the SCB resort just outside Pattaya. The hard work paid great dividends, as Thursday night’s audience discovered.

It was an incredible display of masterful musicianship, full of energy and power, passion and feeling. And this is no easy work to perform — written during the summers of 1901 and 1902, with Mahler’s marriage taking place in between, we have a score packed with everything we have come to expect from this great genius: melancholy passages, funeral marches, mournful trumpet calls interspersed with vibrant and exciting outbursts, glorious melodies and magnificent orchestration. All of this was captured by these remarkable young musicians last Thursday.

Their command of the changing dynamics was astounding, especially in the long and complex central movement, which is a mixture of peasant dance (the Austrian ländler) and the waltz. The orchestras coped marvellously with the changing rhythms and tempi, with the blithe lilt of the waltz carefully balanced against the stomping insistence of the ländler, to give a rich and resplendent performance.

Mahler himself, in a letter to his new wife just hours after he had conducted the first performance of the work in Cologne, Germany, in October 1902, said that conductors would have a huge problem with this movement, as indeed would the players. But he need not have worried.

The opening trumpet notes of the symphony, a subdued fanfare to the following funeral march, demonstrated clearly that the brass musicians were in fine fettle, especially the very fine virtuoso of the solo horn in the third movement. The first two movements were astonishing and powerful. The lower strings maintained a subtle pathos in the quieter passages while the violins rose to great heights in the crescendos; the woodwind was superb — crystal-clear on oboes and flutes, the clarinets adding all shades of colouring and the bassoons chirping in with their rhythmic support. And what a field day the percussionists had — never too loud, entering on time and dazzling us in the crescendo passages as they underpinned the brass melodies accurately and with clarity.

The beautiful adagietto, the fourth movement, was played with feeling and style — not too fast and not as painfully slow as some modern conductors take it — and the audience was moved as one as the harp and strings put their souls into the beautiful writing.

The rondo-finale came across as a great celebration; every player going full-throttle but in perfect time and perfect rhythm, bringing this awesome symphony to a great conclusion with such panache, passion and energy that there were tears in my eyes. Mahler stretches our emotional imagination to its limits in this work, and how remarkable that these young players could get right to the heart of the matter.