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Mahler Symphony No.6: The Surrey Mahler Orchestra, conducted by Keith Willis, The Anvil, Basingstoke, 11 September 2005 (JP)




Every September in South-east England there takes place one of classical music’s best-kept secrets – the continuation of a ‘Decade of Mahler’. The ambitious project is funded by Surrey County Arts, part of Surrey County Council. Coordinated from their base at Westfield Primary School, Woking, experienced musicians (principally past and present members of the Surrey County Youth Orchestra, teachers, as well as enthusiastic amateurs from Surrey and neighbouring counties) have been given the chance to study and then perform Mahler symphonies in chronological order over ten years. The challenge is set for Surrey Mahler Orchestra to achieve a performance of this historic piece of the symphonic repertoire in a period of just one weekend. The keen musicians meets on a Friday night and begin the work knowing that on Sunday it will be performed to the public at one of the south’s major concert venues. This one-off orchestra seemingly thrives each year on these intense periods of rehearsals.


Beginning in 2000 with Mahler’s First Symphony at Guildford Civic Centre, the Second at The Anvil, Basingstoke, the Third at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, the Fourth at St John’s, Smith Square, and last year the Fifth Symphony at Farnham Maltings the ‘Tragic’ Sixth Symphony came to be performed on Sunday 11 September in a return to The Anvil, Basingstoke.


The conductor and force behind this project is Keith Willis, head of culture for Surrey since January 2003. Surrey County Arts is responsible for delivering 260,000 lessons in 450 schools and includes 59 ensembles. As a pianist he has performed much of the concerto repertoire, including all the Beethoven concertos and those of Grieg, Shostakovich, Schumann, Bach, Kabalevsky and Gershwin. He has been guest conductor with many adult groups such as the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of St John’s and Opera Brava. Chamber music has taken Keith Willis to all parts of the UK and to Spain, Greece, Israel, Turkey and the Baltics. Apart from conducting the Surrey Mahler Orchestra which comes together once a year specifically for this project, Keith Willis continues working with Surrey County Youth Orchestra that was formed in 1967. This is a full symphony orchestra, comprising around 100 instrumentalists from around the county.


This year 100 musicians from 40 different youth, college, university and adult orchestras from the home counties joined forces for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Involving 9 horns and 7 percussion players to play bass drum, birch brush, chimes, cowbells, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, xylophone and, of course, the famous hammer.


For the Sixth, as we may all know, Mahler planned his symphony with the Scherzo before the Andante as the middle two movements. It is now accepted that in line with how Mahler conducted his only three public performances of the work that this order is reversed and the more melancholic Andante precedes the nightmarish Scherzo that leads to the terrifyingly declamatory denouement to the Allegro. The Surrey Mahler Orchestra adhered to this new ‘convention’.


Mahler’s view of the Finale was that it represents ‘the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled’. In 1903 when Mahler began the composition he was as happy as any time in his life but the music he wrote is the darkest imaginable. Mahler seemed to always believe that round the next corner fate had something nasty waiting for him and so removed the third blow from the score after the first performance in 1906. 1907 was indeed a very fateful year for Mahler: he was diagnosed with the heart disease that would eventually kill him, he was forced out from his post at the Vienna Court Opera, and the eldest of his two daughters died. Alma Mahler insisted that the Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s autobiography written as a premonition.


This symphony has the only first movement apart from the First Symphony where the exposition is repeated, Keith Willis performed this repeat, as well as restoring the climactic third blow and so performing the original conclusion to the work.


I, too, have come late to this ‘Decade of Mahler’ and did not know what to expect when Keith Willis raised his baton for the opening item of the concert, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture. We have all been there for cringe-making music from earnest amateur orchestras and even I have employed a group of semi-professionals who hacked their way through Das Rheingold at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, some years ago. So anything might have happened. I probably did not expect such secure playing and an exceptional sound from the thrillingly incisive fanfares (that permeate Mahler’s Seventh Symphony) of the Wagner overture right through to the stunning blast of A minor at the conclusion of the Mahler.


Keith Willis’s languid podium style belied the galvanising effect he has on the musicians before him as he engenders a magnificent team effort. (In memory of Aidan Massey, the former leader of the Surrey Mahler Orchestra, Dominic Jewel, who himself had led the Surrey Youth Orchestra, performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 in a voluptuously played performance with an assured dreamy intensity.)


As Jeremy Barham, editor of the new tome Perspectives on Gustav Mahler (Ashgate, 2005) explained in his splendid introductory lecture organised by Surrey County Arts and the Mahler Society, even if Mahler did not compose works for the stage perhaps his symphonies are his operas. Maybe Mahler’s conducting of Mozart and Beethoven did have a profound effect on the Sixth as Michael Kennedy, for one, has proposed – for me it is more likely his opera conducting which in its entirety was an ‘integral part of his composing’. Under Keith Willis the Sixth Symphony came over as more fervent and dramatic than the rather anodyne Sixth I sat through at the Proms with Jansons and the Concertgebouw recently. There’s praise for you! Okay so there were occasionally howling horns and the cowbells intruded a little too much on their idyllic scenes making the mind wander towards cows the size of dinosaurs lumbering across the hillsides. But Mahler is suffocated by too much perfection. This quick performance, some 10 minutes, I would think, shorter than average became almost unbearable in the best way as it drew to a convincingly expressive and grimly powerful, emotionally shattering, conclusion.


Unfortunately there were too few people in The Anvil, Basingstoke, to hear it. The word needs to get out about this magnificent enterprise to bring them the audience they deserve on Sunday 10 September 2006 when the Surrey Mahler Orchestra play the Seventh Symphony. Look out for it – and be there!



©  Jim Pritchard




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