No reviews this weekend – here’s what I was doing instead. I’ve been playing on and off with the Wrexham Symphony Orchestra since 1997. I love them not just because they’re a friendly bunch but because they have such a thirst to explore the repertoire – to “have a go”. They play music that excites them, and there are no finance managers, critics or jaded pros there to tell them that amateur orchestras can’t play Mahler 3, Nielsen 1, Prokofiev 7 or Bruckner 5; or Paul Creston, Bernard Herrmann, Lars Erik Larsson, Alun Hoddinott or Jean Francaix. So they just play it, and I’ve had some of the best musical experiences of my adult life at the William Aston Hall. I’m always frustrated when work or travel (it’s a bit of a trek from Lichfield to Wrexham) causes me to miss a show.
But there was one concert that I was determined not to miss – the Resurrection Symphony, the highlight so far of the Orchestra’s 10-year Mahler cycle. For the occasion, the orchestra had hired the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester – the biggest and most high-profile venue it’s ever played in – and teamed up with no fewer than four Cheshire and North Wales choral societies. Richard Howarth – formerly of the Manchester Camerata – conducted.
So there I was, at the back of the cello section, as astonished as anyone in the orchestra by the transformation that the Bridgewater Hall acoustic wrought on our sound and quietly relieved that after a week of rehearsal, my creaky fingers were finally starting to produce something resembling Mahler’s cello part. It was a welcome reminder, too, of the unique perspective that you get on a piece of music once you’re on the inside, as it were – actually playing it.
It’s incredible how clearly the form of the piece simply lays itself out in front of you as you play – and the details you notice. I was shocked at just how lazy my listening had become. When, in listening to the first movement, had I ever genuinely noticed the passage where Mahler semi-quotes (or at any rate, evokes in unmistakable terms) first Die Walkure, and then Tristan? And later, a huge subito piano tutti clearly cribbed from the end of Gotterdammerung? There they all were, jumping off the page at me as, with one eye on the baton, another on the semiquavers on the next line, I struggled not to run out of bow.
As for the performance itself – it’s hardly my place to say. But I can say that the two soloists, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and April Fredrick both sent little tingles running down my back, that I’ve never heard an amateur choral society with so many, and so sonorous, male voices…and that backstage, post-show, we were already talking about “when” we do Mahler 8…