Anniversary years offer an opportunity to focus attention on a composer, look beyond his best-known works and re-evaluate his place in musical history. Some composers have effectively re-emerged from obscurity following a year spent under the bright lights of anniversary celebrations; one thinks of Max Bruch – his 150th anniversary celebrations in 1988 brought much more to light than the ubiquitous violin concerto – and certainly the tercentenary celebrations for Vivaldi in 1978 convinced the world he was more than just The Four Seasons. Others have fared less well; Mozart celebrations in 1990 simply gave us Mozart overkill, while the plethora of anniversaries in 2010 has been, for the most part, a story of opportunities missed. We have had Chopin coming at us from all sides, but always the popular piano works; I have yet to hear the songs or the chamber pieces. So far, too, Schumann celebrations have given us back-to-back symphonies, while those other gems of concert platform, recital stage and choral arena lay undisturbed; although Gramophone is promising us a proper Schumann retrospective in September. And as for poor old Samuel Barber…one can’t help feeling that, had he been born in any other year, we might be expecting some revival of interest in his music rather than watch his centenary year slip by unnoticed.
The focus at the moment is on Mahler. 150 this month and, if that’s not enough, the celebrations will continue into 2011 with the centenary of his death. The trouble is, he didn’t write enough to fill concert programmes for the next few months, so what we are getting is Mahler symphonies and song-cycles coming out of our ears; which isn’t very exciting since Mahler has always been a mainstay of orchestras’ repertoires and barely a week goes by without one or more of his symphonies being performed somewhere in the world. He did write a few other things – there’s a string quartet out there somewhere – and surely an anniversary year is the time to explore those things which possibly don’t warrant an airing in the normal course of events. But I haven’t heard anyone doing these so far. It’s symphonies and song-cycles as far as the eye can see.
And here’s a mere glimpse of this Mahler mania. Just looking through my diary for July I have been asked to attend five performances of his First Symphony ,one of his Second, two of his Third, one of his Sixth, two of his Seventh, one of his Eighth and two of his Ninth. And that doesn’t take into consideration the Mahler discs that have been sent for review or just for my entertainment. Of course, I’m not a card-carrying Mahlerphile – I think I have gone off the Fourth and Fifth symphonies for life – so I’ve turned down all those invitations except three – Mahler 8 in London (mustn’t miss the First Night of the Proms on Friday despite the fact that I have yet to get to grips with this Symphony’s second part), Mahler 3 in Bangkok next Wednesday (simply because it seems so fantastically incongruous), and Mahler 2 in Singapore last night, not only because, of all Mahler symphonies, this, for me, proves an irresistible draw, but also because this promised to be an exceptional occasion; and so it proved to be.
Some months ago Chan Tze Law bent my ear at exceptional length over the Orchestra of the Music Makers, telling me about its membership – young people with an interest in music but no professional aspirations in the main – its organisation – totally self-governing and managing – and its achievements – HSBC’s Youth Excellence Award recipient in 2009. Not only that, he pressed his point home by declaring it attracted the attention of the Singapore President himself, as well as numerous high-ranking politicians. And then he threw in his bombshell. “By the way, they’re performing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in the Esplanade in July”. What? A youth orchestra, an amateur orchestra, tackling one of the pinnacles of the orchestral repertoire? A triumph, surely, of hope over reality. Never one to miss a horrendous debacle (after all I lived in Malaysia for a quarter of a century where the national pastime is wallowing in others’ misfortune, be it a road accident, a house fire or marital difficulties) I put it in my diary. As the date got closer, so Tze Law became every more enthusiastic and I began to think he might be sitting on something a little out of the ordinary. He was.
The orchestra of the Music Makers is, by any standards, an exceptional bunch. It plays with the polish and security of a fully professional band, small woodwind intonation problems and occasionally over-enthusiastic brass notwithstanding, and while there were small areas where ensemble might have been tighter, there were very many more areas where ensemble, balance and overall coordination were nigh-on perfect. I don’t recall ever having heard those great percussion crescendos so vividly delivered, the “Last Trump” and the “Nightingale” so potently evoked or, indeed, that one final magnificent chord so sublimely sustained. And as for the off-stage brass and the various players dotted around the hall, that was a moment of pure, unadulterated magic. This was, truly, an epic performance. Huge praise must also go to the combined strengths of the Queensland and Singapore Festival choruses. The altos didn’t really blend, but the tenors and basses were as rich and opulent as any choir I’ve ever heard in this music and, of course, we can’t ignore the amazing work of Chan Tze Law who pushed the work along tirelessly (possibly the first three movements were a little too urgent, the Urlicht came on us much too eagerly and how I wish he had lengthened the break between first and second movements) drawing magnificent and exhilarating climaxes from his superb forces.
Perhaps it would be fairer to side-step the issue of the soloists. Rebecca Chellappah possesses a gloriously fruity contralto, but what language was she singing in? And Jeong Ae Ree gave every impression of having arrived at the wrong hall for the wrong performance of a work she had never encountered before, her look of total bewilderment extending to the final bow when she looked for all the world as if she was expecting to sing some more. But there was one soloist whose work stood out as exceptional. See Ian Ike opened the concert with as ravishing and eloquent account of the Bruch Concerto as I’ve heard for a long time, mercifully expunging memories of a dire attempt at the work by Sarah Chang some months ago. It was rather unfortunate that the Esplanade authorities chose to cut the audiences’ generous applause short by pushing out a promotional advert on their PA system which promptly shut everybody up. Full praise to the audience for resuming their applause and calling See back on stage once this wholly unwelcome interruption was over.
But the evening was all about Mahler and, if I feel I’ve had a surfeit of Mahler by the time the month is out, the performance of The Music Makers Orchestra will live in my memory for many years to come. I doubt that this anniversary year will throw up anything quite so rewarding again and if I ever claim to be “tired of Mahler”, just remind me of The Music Makers Orchestra of Singapore; guaranteed to inspire even the most jaded of critical palettes.