KVT – Mahler Meets the VNSO

KVT – Mahler Meets the VNSO

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KVT 2014

KVT - Mahler Meets the VNSO 1

KVT and après interval excellence at the Opera House

KVT - Mahler Meets the VNSO 2

Thursday, May 29 at Nha Hat Lon

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The house lights dimmed as the 20 minute interval came to and end and the musicians of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra came onto the stage, tuned up, and waited for their excellent conductor, Ong Tetsuji Honna to take to the podium

He’d just taken them through a tour de force journey through the famous Tchaikovsky Violin Sonata with the incredibly talented Goto Ryu mesmerizing the audience and now it was make it or break it with the follow up symphony, Mahler’s First…The Titan.

Why it got stuck with that grandiose name is conjectural and I always like to tackle a listening experience of it with Mahler’s original intent that it was a sort of grand tone poem with a funeral in the middle.

Mahler’s ten symphonies were pretty much despised and derided by original audiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but Mahler, an optimist said ‘My time will come’….and it did in 1960 when Leonard Bernstein revived the lot in a single season with the New York Philharmonic ….and now a nary a day goes by some where in the world without a Mahler performance

The VNSO, with Honna, did a complete Mahler Cycle beginning in 2010 and it’s refreshing to see them back in the groove. This time the first symphony had a few, teeny rough edges but these added to the appeal of the piece…making it sound youthful and immediate and full of energy.

The symphony is no longer considered hard to get your ears around and if anything has become a bit quaint so Honna’s mob gave me an interpretation that made me feel freshly invigorated and excited…..a daunting task when you consider that I, like the rest of the audience, was still reeling emotionally from a Goto Ryu’s sensational violin playing.

They got us into the mood straight away with the first movement that I imagine is a new, dawn awakening, spreading rays across a landscape, a bit like a canvas by Jacob Van Ruisdael….

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A quiet beginning dotted with bird songs and brass fanfares of sun creeping over the horizon and the double bass giving the scene a taste of uncertainty. The cellos take over with a warm and flowing melody and this builds as the other instruments add to heightened optimism… suddenly quietened as clouds creep across the face of the sun and the birds decide that perhaps it was a false dawning. But the cellos save the day again and help build up a tumultuously happy mood that comes to a jubilant finale led by the crash of drums

Mahler keeps the optimistic mood buzzing and pulsing in the second movement with a mid European country scene, bucolic and alive with peasant dances and echoes of distant yodeling. You can imagine reapers in yellow barley fields, wiping sweat from their brows and anticipating the evening revelries, jugs of wine, furious dances and exhausted golden haired girls and curly locked males sidling off for liasons in the crinkling hay.

Mahler once wrote that: “composing is like playing with building blocks, where new buildings are created again and again, using the same blocks. Indeed, these blocks have been there, ready to be used, since childhood, the only time that is designed for gathering.

His first symphony seems to be a panorama of early memories

The third movement seems to be everyone’s’ favorite. I call it the Fiddler on the Roof movement and wouldn’t mind betting that its composer Jerry Bock was listening to it in the early 1960ies when he got infatuated with the klezmer type sounds and thus Teyve, Golda and their five daughters came to musical life in Czarist Russia

In reality Mahler was influenced by the 1850 woodblock print of a hunter’s funeral by Moritz von Schwind and which was a favorite on nursery walls of Mahler’s childhood

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The tympani set the mood and the double bass come in with the kid’s song Frere Jacques (Brother John) as the coffin of a hunter is heralded to its final resting place by a parade of animals that the hunter was more apt to kill as trophies or food.

If you ever sang the song in rounds as a child you’d delight in the memories it evokes.

It’s a lot of fun when played with gusto, as did the VNSO and I relish my own images of the assorted animals tenderly laying the hunter to rest under the dirt and then dancing on the mound and pounding it to oblivion before enjoying the new serenity life without a gun bearing predator on the loose. Finally weeping crocodile tears they all fade off stage right with the hollow boom of tympani echoing their ‘sorrow’.

I equate the scene with crowds of mourners who have to put on a public display of sorrow when a despised tyrant’s hearse is paraded through the city…better a sad face masking a mind full of delirious happiness than expressing truth and have the secret police come knocking on the door late at night.

Then it’s into the magnificent finale which if played with gutsy bravado can’t help but provoke a storm of applause….as it did

Some psychologically minded critics have said that Mahler is so successful today because his compound of optimism (an enduring reminder that life can be beautiful) and neurosis reflects the state of modern western society to a remarkable degree. We can sense this in the last movement which bursts in abruptly like an explosion of heated emotion. ‘Romantic yearning wages battle against darker sentiments,’ and sometimes an unsettling dissonance makes you edgy and anxious until, finally, hope and humanity and our better natures win through as the melodies that made you alive and vibrant in the first movement are revived, quelled, resurrected, smothered until humanity and hope win out as the horn players stand and let the house lights reflect off their instruments

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and a great bejeweled crown of triumph anoints the world and we end up applauding madly.

Excellent work Ong Honna and your talented musicians….. and I think that your choice of giving the conductor’s bouquet to the timpanists was wonderful

Another totally excellent and memorable night’s music.

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My apologies for getting carried away with it all and having too good a time with words….it may be to do with my obsessive anxiety neurosis or perhaps a burst of super-primed optimism

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.


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