March 26, 2012, by Stephen Mumford
Life, death, its meaning, resurrection. On Saturday 24th March an audience at Nottingham’s Albert Hall were treated to an insight into all of the above when they attended a performance of Mahler’s epic second symphony. The event was staged by the Lakeside Arts Centre and included around 200 performers from the University of Nottingham orchestra and choir. Staff and Students from the Department of Music make up the heart of both though they are open to students of other schools, alumni and members of the public. To see a young undergraduate take lead violin in such a challenging performance was amazing and a source of great pride to me as Dean of Arts. Rebecca Hutter was assured and faultless. The musicianship throughout the orchestra was staggering and successfully transported the audience to the heights of metaphysical contemplation. After sitting for an hour, the choir then rose dramatically and treated us to the vocal climax of the symphony in the fifth movement. Having coaxed the finest, most energetic performances from his orchestra, conductor Jonathan Tilbrook decided on a slow and peaceful choral delivery: prolonging the transcendence, leaving the audience enraptured to the last.
Philosopher of science Karl Popper said in A World of Propensities: “Next to music and art, science is the greatest, most beautiful and most enlightening achievement of the human spirit.” He had it right. Science is great; but music especially gives us access to the sublime. The message of that enlightenment is up for interpretation. It is hard to say exactly what a work of art is about: of course we cannot be too scientific about it. Fortunately, Mahler left us some written clues as to what themes were in his mind.
Mahler was always the outsider. Jewish-born and from the German-speaking minority of Bohemia, his second symphony reflects a feeling of alienation, rejection and the finitude of human existence. It starts as a meditation on life at the point of death, questioning the meaning of it all. The work then proceeds through a cry of despair in the third movement but rediscovers optimism by the end. There is a resurrection, but not necessarily a religious one. Life continues and “Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten” (You were not born in vain! Have not lived in vain, suffered in vain!).
Mahler took nearly seven years to complete his second symphony. One might think he was inefficient to spend so long over a piece of less than 90 minutes. Life is short and we are often in a rush. Yet after the Nazi-period, in which his work was banned in much of central Europe, Mahler’s importance came to be fully appreciated. The second symphony is a particular triumph. It will capture the imagination of new listeners for as long as our planet contains thinkers. For Popper was right. Everything else is next to music.
Mahler 2 and its amazing culmination with the choir provided a ‘hair standing up on the back of my neck’ moment. It was tremendous to see such a large audience and to have such an appreciative response for the Philharmonia and Choir. Congratulations to all the participants.
I think it needs mentioning that a large number of the musicians on that stage are from outside the music department. This should really be brought forward much more as it shows that the musical culture at the university runs much deeper than people can see from the outside. This should be an example of great collaboration within the university and shows how many lives these events reach out to and effect.
Everyone who performed that night should be extremely proud of their accomplishment.
I’ve changed to post to reflect that, Christopher. Someone from Music had already mentioned that many performers were not on Music degrees. So you are right.
I was one of the sopranos in the choir. Thank you for writing such a good review; I’m glad you enjoyed hearing it as much as we enjoyed performing it.
I’m a PhD researcher in the School of English, but I’ve been singing since the age of 7. Opportunities like the University choir and orchestra are so important because they allow students and staff from outside the School of Music to take part in something that’s often been a big part of their life, and recognises us as more rounded people who aren’t just our degree course or research area. As a researcher, it’s also enriching to find the points of connection between music and my research interests, and it inspires different, exciting ways of thinking.
As a double alumnus (BA Music 2009 and Lakeside Arts Centre Music Assistant in 2010!), I had the pleasure of returning to Nottingham to prop up the back of the viola section on Saturday night. Breath-taking commitment and focus from all those involved. I managed not to cry (just) at “Bereite dich” but that was mainly because I was worried it would mess up the varnish of my viola – if I was in the audience I almost certainly would have!
Aside from the players and singers, I’d also like to comment the incredible bravery of Catherine and Jonathan to programme this, and the sterling efforts of all those involved in the “extra-musical arrangements” (Maria, Catherine, the student trainees etc.).
Onwards and upwards UoN Music!
I was with the second altos and had an amazing experience too. It was, as mentioned above, an excellent example of the creative collaboration that takes place across the university (in performance and research). But I’m also particularly proud (naturally) of the Music students (not least the entire first year, for whom this project formed part of their Ensemble Performance module): well done guys!
[…] I was singing in the University Choir, performing Mahler’s 2nd symphony. There’s a review up by Professor Stephen Mumford in which he notes that “music especially gives us access to the sublime”. As a singer […]
The 2nd symphony is truly a moving piece of work. A masterpiece even. You mention seven years for completion, what year was the symphony started?