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Proms 2009: Prom 5 – Mahler 9 \ Haitink \ LSO

July 20, 2009

I didn’t want to be in the arena for tonight’s concert. So much so, I even queued up in vain to mop up any returns there might be at the Royal Albert Hall box office.

I knew it would be a busy affair. @bbcproms had helpfully pointed out during the afternoon just how long the day ticket queue had extended. Panic had set in at that point. If so many people were queuing up for a day ticket, there probably wasn’t going to be very much room to stand and little chance to sit down as and when my calves began to ache.

Acting on impulse and almost certainly breaking the rules (you know where to find me should anyone feel the need to complain), I leapt for the lift, singularly focussed on occupying my own special space on the cold floor up in the Gallery. Things would be OK up there.

There’s space up there, you see. There’s a little more freedom to move around. The high ceilings offer a safe place to think. Minds can wander, fingers can do crochet. The rest of us can lay on the floor staring up at the ceiling.

Unfortunately things didn’t improve immediately, it has to be said. In some respects one might argue things got a little bit worse as I gradually became aware of what exactly was going on in my head.

I had a headache.

My head was awash with all sorts of seemingly important questions: How bad exactly would it be if the pages on the website didn’t validate correctly? What was the point in making all these videos? Was there any point in writing about a prom concert? Who really cared? Even if Charles Hazlewood went down with a heavy cold on Thursday, he’d almost certainly be dosed up on decongestant and if he wasn’t, Suzi Klein would be able to step in to presenting duties anyway. Was I really a deluded narcissist or just a narcissist? Was the latter any better than the former? And why did that man send me a clip of some lady singing “John Jacob Jingelheimer Schmidt” when he really should have been listening to last night’s Handel like I was? What was that about?

And then the harp began to play, ringing out across the Royal Albert Hall. And then the strings joined with a strangely familiar yet unfamiliar chord floating up around in the interior. Suddenly everything inside my head stopped. I hadn’t heard a sound like that since .. the last time. And I couldn’t remember exactly when that was.

I’ve not heard Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. At least I don’t think I have. I didn’t recognise anything in it. In fact, I challenge anyone who sat in the the LSO’s performance to whistle me a tune from the work and then watch a flicker of recognition flash across my face. Maybe I need to listen to it more. Maybe I don’t.

My programme notes were tossed aside shortly after that, destined to fill a space on my shelf along with all the other trophies from last year.

What struck me more than any of the small amounts of reading about the composer’s life I’d completed over the weekend, was just how incredibly tormented the man must have been.

His harmonic writing is one extended and exquisite exercise in tantalising the listener. Just as one chord feels as though it’s been resolved and a new direction proposed, so we taken in an entirely different direction with an additional note played by an instrument in the orchestra we’d totally forgotten about even though we’d heard it only a few seconds ago.

Nothing is certain. Nothing is mapped out. If you’re listening to it for the first time you’ve no idea where Mahler’s going with anything. It’s an overwhelming roller-coaster ride to be experienced in the ridiculously safe environment of a concert hall. But for God’s sake hold on. Don’t get left behind.

There were moments (possibly because of the thoughts careering around my head before the concert began) when I wished for a triumphant ending of the kind Shostakovich can be relied upon to deliver. I wanted trumpets and timpani and an “in your face” conclusion like I know the fly killer spray underneath the kitchen sink guarantees whenever there’s a wasp bouncing off the window. In case you don’t know Mahler 9, no such brash conclusion will come your way.

What I hadn’t anticipated was an adagio movement which delivered far more than I realised I needed. There was still the exhausting harmonic twists and turns but with considerably more promise of an unequivocal ending.

Don’t cut straight to the end. You need to hear everything else before it – ideally in a cathedral like space with low-level lighting and little distraction. Then, when you get to the conclusion you’ll hear as I did a conclusion played out in the strings which went on for ages and could have gone on for a good deal longer too.

And it was an ending which left no one in the auditorium questioning whether the orchestra and their conductor deserved the mammoth applause showered upon them.

Listen to the concert via the BBC’s iPlayer thing. If you’ve missed the 7 day window, shame on you. Mind you, I bet you it’ll be repeated at some point.

  1. Per Lundgren permalink

    Caught the live broadcast on Swedish public radio. Third mvmt more colourful than I have ever heard it before – delicious work by conductor and orchestra!!

  2. Martin Kimber permalink

    Shame, i turned up with a spare ticket for a circle seat (my wife could not make it); my first ever Mahler experience was at Proms 1970, Concertgebouw conducted by . . . Haitink, the 9th and it made a great impression. Now I am used to the near perfect sound of Birmingham Symphony Hall but the LSO were flawless. And, yes, I resold the spare ticket within 10 secs of offering it.

  3. Chris Poppe permalink

    It was new to me too. Wasn’t that final movement a surprise? Definitely one to relisten to with no interruptions!!

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