Concert Preview: Interview with Chan Tze Law on Mahler’s edition of Beethoven 9th 11 Feb 2016

Chan Tze Law
The Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) takes on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in Gustav Mahler’s edition, at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 4 March 2016.

Derek Lim spoke to their music director Chan Tze Law to find out more about Beethoven, Mahler’s edition and more.

TFI Prof Chan, thank you for this interview with The Flying Inkpot. In this concert the OMM and you will be performing Gustav Mahler’s edition of Beethoven’s Ninth. Just as a bit of background, we all know Mahler to have been a wonderful composer, but how was he as a conductor?

CTL Mahler was an effective, but controversial conductor and music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (between 1898 and 1901 -Ed). He allegedly was obsessively demanding of his orchestral musicians, and his ego extended to prolonged intellectual sparring with the orchestra and music writers of his time. He apparently had an exceedingly perfectionist personality and we could speculate that this was one of the reasons he was drawn to retouching this symphony.

TFI Tell us more. Was Mahler the first person to have retouched the 9th?
CTL Wagner was the first to suggest adjustments to this symphony but Mahler took it a bit farther. First reactions to his edition were largely negative. Critics were fierce in condemning his moves, implicating him in all sorts of conspiracy theories, to the point where Mahler felt necessary to defend his actions in retouching the 9th by distributing a rebuttal for his critics to his audience! It didn’t seem to have helped his cause and luckily we won’t have to do that!

TFI Conspiracy theories seem like a bit of a stretch?
CTL The main point of contention at the time was whether Mahler’s motivation to retouch these symphonies were to further his own artistic goals, or to realise Beethoven’s intentions, albeit in a more modern context. From my perspective as a conductor, I know that Mahler also retouched and conducted the other great works by Beethoven as well as the Schumann, which suggests to me that he had a genuine interest in preserving these works in the context where performance circumstances were changing, largely brought about by the expansion in size of the orchestra at the turn of the century.

TFI What made you want to perform this edition of the 9th? Will we be hearing any of Wagner’s re-orchestrations in due course as well?
CTL Our hope is to share with our audience what Mahler’s alternative approach would sound like, by performing his version which in many ways suits OMM well. This is mainly due to the larger size of OMM, its previous experiences in performing Mahler symphonies, as well as our goal to bring to audiences different approaches to the orchestral experience.

While we are not performing Wagner’s ‘version’, we have included one of his works in the programme (the final scene from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg -Ed). It would be interesting to hear the audience reaction to the two sound worlds, and if Mahler did in fact bring the two closer to each other, since we know that Mahler knew Wagner’s ideas on performing Beethoven quite thoroughly.

beethoven7TFI How different does this edition sound exactly, and what are some of the special moments or most significant retouchings the audience might expect to hear? Why did he use two sets of timpanis, and should we expect any hammers or cowbells in this?

CTL When criticism first arose against his edition, some of Mahler’s supporters remarked that unless prompted in advance, many in the audience who were oblivious to the intellectual debate would enjoy the performance just as much, and this was indeed what happened when Mahler performed his retouched Beethoven’s 9th.

As for listening points, let me discuss this with the help of Beethoven piano concerti development sections, where balance between the woodwind solo passages and the soloist and orchestra is often problematic. Many of these passages are marked piano or pianissimo by Beethoven (pictured, right), yet with a modern orchestra and large grand piano that’s a real challenge to make these solo lines audible to the audience (many might be used to recordings where these would sound crystal clear) so we adjust this by asking the woodwinds to ‘project’ a pianissimo sound. Of course, this will require quite loud playing just to cut through the orchestra!

In many ways, Mahler’s adjustments are similar, but with larger structural considerations as well. He ‘micro-manages’ some of the expressive elements on the one hand, through instructions for adjusting dynamics, and on the other hand, by increasing the number of musicians and instruments, and and in so doing, expands the potential headroom of the orchestra.

You mentioned the double timpani sets, cow bells and giant hammers. Thankfully, I think the effect here is more tonal than visual, since the effect of the double timps serve to enhance the tonal depth in the first movement, and he did not employ the large hammer blows or cow bells, probably as a mark of respect for Beethoven!

TFI That’s probably just as well! Speaking of performance versus textural fidelity, when performing Mahler’s reorchestration, other than instrumentation, do you think it is important to perform it in the way that the composer-conductor (Mahler) might have had, with regard to tempo relations, rubati, phrasing and so on, and do you attempt to do that?

CTL In the original Mahler-conducted performances, he was critiqued as being ‘overly interpretive’ in his renditions of Beethoven’s symphonies. While there is a real danger of ‘finding things in the music that isn’t actually there’,  I do believe that a Mahlerian approach to Beethoven is worthy of exploration, to see what influence this work may have had on his own symphonies. I have conducted Beethoven 9 before, but not this version, so I am looking forward to how this is affected by my experience conducting Mahler 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, in particular, 2 and 8.

mahler3The challenge is to find a balance between what Mahler (pictured, left) might have found interesting, such as how he might have dealt with such matters as the lead up to climaxes, how much one dwells on cadential points; through to texture; such as the tonal qualities of the enhanced sections bearing in mind the modern instruments can more comfortably handle unisons. And there are other details too, relating to phrasing, dynamics, quadrupling, all adding up to the bigger picture. So for me, the complexity arises not just from how one might interpret Beethoven’s 9th, but also ‘How would one expect Mahler to have handled it?’ And while we have some recordings (such as William Steinberg’s along with more modern ones), it would have been so great to be able to hear Mahler conducting Beethoven!

TFI Apart from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the OMM’s been the orchestra which has performed Mahler  the most in Singapore. What’s the next big challenge?

CTL Actually, I find that every programme set a new challenge for OMM, partly due to the rotational nature of its members. It is true that our programming team has led us down the path of Mahler 1, 2, 5 and 8, yet a Mahler cycle was never part of OMM’s plans. We saw Mahler 8 as the beginning of a new phase for OMM, where we prototyped a collaborative model for future OMM projects, with Beethoven 9 being the first example. Currently the team is planning OMM’s 10th anniversary season, and so if you have any ideas please share with us!

The Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) will play at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 4 March 2016. Tickets are available on SISTIC. Also played will be Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Lakes Awake at Dawn and “Wach auf and Finale” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

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