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Voices of hundreds and thousands: singing and listening as a self-discovery

Proms 9 and 11: Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 (World Orchestra for Peace/Runnicles) and Mahler’s Symphony No 8 (BBС National Orchestra of Wales/Søndergård)

The weekend of 21 and 22 July 2018, that had London soaking in the serene warm evenings following windless days under the sun, immersed the Proms audiences in voices of hundreds of singers performing major works of Beethoven and Mahler, both of which being unique in their respective canons. They share the sheer grandeur of the design, the audacity of scoring the symphonies for an ochestra, several choirs and vocalists, usage of the works of German poets (Schiller and Goethe) and also the imprint of the composer’s connection with heavenly inspiration, conceived either as a result of a decade of hard work (for Beethoven) or the ‘Einfall’ (sudden and unexpected arrival of creativity) in the case of Mahler who came in contact with his inner creative spirit in a holiday cabin. The symphonies become more than just pieces of music, they are imbued with a philosophy, with a moral message, they also (with hundreds of singers and instrumentalists on stage) invite us to share a communal experience which is very akin to a religious one. It is no wonder that in both cases the audiences left the performance transformed and introspective, with a feeling that one indeed became a channel of something unknown, spiritual, god-like; and if some could be sceptical about classical music being able to achieve such an effect, one should have been there on those two nights to experience it in real life.

Prom 9, 21 July 2018

The evening of the Prom 9 started with a modern piece ‘A Shadow’ (2018) feeding on its composer’s native choral traditions. The Latvian 40-year old Ēriks Ešenvalds with its work, inspired by the Baltic countries’ centuries-long folk singing tradition began to immerse us to a communal atmosphere of choral singing and uplift us with its simplicity and immersiveness. ‘A Shadow’ is based on Longfellow’s poem in the heart of which is future-oriented observation about possible fates of generations that come after us. Fittingly, it had BBC Proms Youth Choir under the baton the experienced choral conductor Simon Halsey singing its melodic lines based only on modal sounds and ‘shadowed’ by metallophones that some of the singers held in their hands. Only a touch repetitive, ‘A Shadow’ helped us to imagine what role choral singing could do – it could serve as an exortation aimed at future, a mass memory, and a prayer. It was followed by Britten’s orchestral ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ (1940-1941) that transferred us to the commemoration of the event that still haunts the minds of modern people – the WWII: a very modern, troubled, nervous and disjointed one, bringing visions of death without ever allowing a single syllable of it to be sung or pronounced. The fact of it being rejected at some point by its commissioner, the Japanese government, spoke a lot about historical changes in music’s acceptability, and of symbolic meaning it could bear that could be denied or induce fear and discontent rather than pleasure and depending on the beholder’s ear and expectations. It was David Runnicles who stepped onto the podium now, with World Ochestra for Piece that had musicians from many world countries, assembled in multi-coloured dresses (unusually for an orchestra) in front of him.

David Runnicles during Prom 9. Credits: Chris Christodoulou

Finally, after the interval, the BBC Proms Youth Choir and four soloists joined the World Orchestra for Piece for the culmination of the evening - Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 in D minor (Choral). This work (or some parts of it, or even its final melody) has become so ingrained in our minds that it becomes both easy and difficult to listen to it with a fresh ear or to disintegrate it from our previous experiences of listening to it (especially since it has been frequently performed at Proms from their inception). As with other Beethoven’s works or motifs, it has come to symbolize in our minds much more (and at the same time much less, as the meanings have been condensed) than the composer intended, bearing the imprint of different events of the modernity.

Soloists, two conductors and choir after Prom 9. Credits: Chris Christodoulou

Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ pathos could be too much for some sceptical modern minds, as it tries to induce us to experience an all-embracing joy without giving the reasons or explanations as to why we should ‘sense our creator’ or ‘bow’ or feel ‘the radiant spark of the gods’. Also, one could feel the discrepancy between the orchestral part of the symphony which takes the bulk of it and sudden choral addition that would seem to appear almost without preparation. However, Beethoven cleverly distributes the attempts at singing (from instruments like cellos, basses, even trombones) througout the score, showing how a human voice could become a final achievement in music’s evolution towards more articulate self-expression. It is almost like a choir and soloists become the terminus of the symphony’s quasi-darwinist momentum towards the sky, and can indeed reach such emotions as joy, happiness and elation with their united voices.

Erin Wall, Judit Kutasi, Russell Thomas and Franz-Josef Selig. Credits: Chris Christodoulou

A symphony does not try to persuade us we could be there, it just blazes the trail which we are allowed to follow – almost like an exercise in buddhist meditation, and it is for every member of the audiences to attest where he or she found himself/herself after living through Beethoven’s 9th again. It was very symbolic (probably intentional) that the World Orchestra for Piece was performing it, as the symphony was evidently having in it the medicine against narrow nationalism and wars by focusing on our similarities and unity. The BBC Proms Youth Choir (under Simon Halsey) changed their mood from their first piece of the evening which was openly juvenile and tender, and acquired a focused concentration appropriate for this work and surprising to see in such young adults. And again, as for many evenings before, the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall’s architectural design was very helpful in shaping the kaleidoscopic variations of our emotions induced by Beethoven’s piece. It invited multiple semiotics of perception exactly because of its long-term existence as one of the humanity’s established musical archetypes.

Prom 11, 22 July 2018

The hot, balmy, calm evening of Sunday 22 July was fully dedicated to Mahler’s Symphony No 8, that was dubbed by its first producer as a Symphony of a Thousand, as for the first performance in 1910 it required 1029 singers and musicians. The Symphony obiously required some preparation in order for the listeners to understand the scope of Mahler’s design and to get prepared to be infused into a spiritual construction brought together by the conductor, orchestra, several choirs and eight soloists. Tom Service, repeating his talk of the last year, prepared a comprehensive guide to the Faustian theme for the listeners, mentioning Schnittke’s ‘Faust Cantata’,’Damnation of Faust’ by Berlioz, Liszt’s ‘Faust Symphony’ and Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ in classical music, and also doing a foray into jazz, rock and pop. But what kind of attitude one must have to Mahler’s consciously deep and earnest excursion into German Christian themes. In his pre-concert talk to the interpretation of Mahler 1 Esa-Pekka Salonen, the renowned Mahlerian himself, said that he does not quite believe in the pathos of the Eighth Symphony, as it seems like an intellectual and strategic construct, an attempt of a Jewish outcast to belong to the society he desperately wanted to integrate into. On the other side, it is difficult to cast aside and treat as self-presentation rather than a sincere recollection Mahler’s words about ‘Spiritus Creator’ taking holf of me and driving him to complete the greatest work of his life. And if Mahler counted on this work to bring him triumph and success, he obviously was not disappointed, as after conducting the work himself, he received glorious public and critical reception.

After Mahler 8 performance. Credits: Jari Kallio

Two parts of the Symphony seem so different and distant, but their juxtaposition in a listener’s mind creates the desired effect of plunging into medieval piousness and re-appearing from it to the heights of Goethe’s romantic and mystic creation where one could sense the version of Dante’s ‘Paradise’. The first is based on the Latin hymn ‘Veni, creator spiritus’, while the second part follows the final line of Goethe’s closing scene of Part 2 of ‘Faust’. While two parts are so seemingly different, they are in fact fully integrated in conception as well as in music, and appear to an attentive listener as an edifice after careful listening – the process almost similar to reading Proust’s seminal work. The Symphony also works on almost physical level of communication between listeners and performers. The first part evokes the communal roots in us – BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales and Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs engage in beautiful polyphony inviting the spirit to enter into us, enlighten us, endow us, fill us and sooth us. Beyond the religious text the masculine symbolism is obvious for the modern listener, and the music serves almost like a ritual, an extortion, a preparation of our bodies and souls for the entrance of creative spirit in whatever form one can imagine. The extasy and jubilation of the choirs engage us and prepare us for the second part, which is more modern, neurotic, and richer in imagery than the first part. But the first part gives us the ground, the roots to develop into the second – uniting us together, reminding us of one of the music’s primeval functions which is a ritual exercised within the community.

Camilla Nylund, soloist in Mahler 8. Credits: Chris Christodoulou

The second part is suddenly exquisitely silent, tender, almost non-existent, subtle in its orchestration. Thomas Søndergård guides the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (his final concert with this orchestra) as almost walking on a rope. One could create one own images for this opening, while it still has shadows of themes from the first part. But now we are in some place that obviously requires loneliness, concentration, romantic isolation, connection to nature and to deeper layers of our own souls. What happens next in a way does not come from heaven as in a usual religious imagery, it comes from within ourselves, and the construction is thus very Dantean in character, as we are invited to become every single voice and character as they were small threads of our own destiny. With eight (4 women, 4 men) on stage, it is sometimes difficult to follow which exact character each one of them impersonates, with voices of angels of all variations - younger, more perfect, blessed – intermittently participating as well. One feels the sense of urgency, of ascent, of anticipation, but, contrary to the first part, something and in fact everything is already there, one only needs to truly live through this feeling of purity, acceptance and clarity of purpose. The spirit (presumably of Faust whom we never see or hear) is elevated and free, and saved in the text, but the Symphony leads us through the symbolic experiences of all men, women and angels who together and on their own interact with the force that could be called divine if the music did not let us feel it comes from within us, from this sense of connection with nature, with the future and with the past.

Joelle Harvey, soloist in Mahler 8. Credits: Chris Christodoulou

The music teaches us - almost in a buddhist manner – to live through an intense moment without ever looking back or beyond or anywhere really, and also empowers us to stand on our own while also being with so many others. And such momentum, such condensed sense of music and ideas working on our minds together obviously has been built by Mahler and his interpreter of the evening, the inspired Søndergård, through the preceding two hours. Where ‘das Ewig-Weibliche’ draws us (‘zieht uns’) is not clear, as after this Symphony every part of air, space, silence or sound seemed heaven. Everybody walked home (to buses, to the underground, through the park) subsumed by this experience and silently uplifted, as though one learnt a new secret of eternal bliss. The British urban nature seemed to have heard the sounds from beyond the walls of the Royal Albert Hall, as it was serene, calm, beautiful, obviously very, very ‘weiblich’ indeed, and thoughts dissipated and stopped as the urge to hear intensively and to stay tuned to this eternal sound of happiness was more important than any post-symphonic investigation into its meaning. One could not possibly be ironic or distrustful about such total experiences, or how could one? Other listeners, and new performers of that magnificent creation, Mahler 8, could tell us how it would be for them then.

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