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Jessica Duchen
Sunday 5th September 2010
"Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?"

Six thousand-odd people in the Royal Albert Hall certainly seemed to think so on Friday night. The roar of joy that greeted the Great Gustav's Symphony No.1 as delivered by the Berlin Philharmonic and Starry Sir Simon was an experience in itself. Anyone who has never attended a Prom needs to imagine the scene: this vast round hall packed out, the arena crammed with promenaders yelling for music and the musicians who play it. Anyone who doubts the value of the BBC and publicly funded arts needs to imagine it too, by the way, because this just wouldn't be possible without them.

And did the Berlin Phil deserve that response? You bet your bottom pound they did. Like Pooh Bear's honey pot, the Berlin Phil is honey all the way through. It's a rarer phenomenon amongst orchestras than you might think. Besides, imagine having Emmanuel Pahud as your principal flautist. This amazing man with his golden flute and a strong following of his own doesn't stand out unduly from his colleagues; this is the musical quality you may expect from each individual. Their unity of ensemble is probably the finest I've heard in any orchestra, anywhere in the world.

Sir Simon Rattle, a returning hero who conquered Berlin after being given a rather silly-ly rough ride on home shores, not least by our press (could that possibly be because allegedly he prefers not to talk to us? chicken/egg?), is not Herbert von Karajan (and hopefully won't be), but his interpretations of Beethoven's Symphony No.4 and the Mahler were like a fine wine with a long, strong aftertaste, the perfectly-calibrated crescendi of the Beethoven and the orchestra-circling, deeply hushed sighing figure of Mahler's spoof-'Frere Jacques' funeral march rumbling in the mind long after the music was over.

I don't want to grumble, because this was a seriously memorable night, but if I have anything to ask for, it would be a stronger Klezmery twist in that slow movement's first contrasting section, an even more sardonic characterisation, and - yes, less outright beauty at that point.

My colleagues are clocking in with a range of responses - here's David Nice at The Arts Desk for starters, suggesting big screens as the next way forward for the Proms, since so many people couldn't get in. (And unfortunately it wasn't televised - most other Friday-nighters have been). Rumour had it that the promming queue was closed to new arrivals at 11.30am; a Twitter contact says he was the last to get in, at 3.20pm; but when I turned up, around 7pm, people were still lining up way down Prince Consort Road and out to Queen's Gate.

And so to digesting Mahler's Symphony No.1... Some people are turning noses up at various anniversary interviews and broadcasts in which a few rather fine musicians have been opining that Mahler in some way had the vision to foretell the 20th century, especially the Holocaust. Fair enough; we respond with hindsight, and that's inevitable. But if the chilling march into oblivion of the Klezmer band and the forest animals and the shattering of their silence by the devastating onset of that outsize finale doesn't spark thoughts of this in at least half the hall, I would be reasonably surprised. Two of my three conductor interviewees the other week said something like this and, given the quality of their musicianship, I wouldn't discount its value quite so swiftly. If such associations inspire conductors to bring out the side of Mahler that is truly terrifying, I for one have no problem with it.

Of course the music speaks for itself. We may wonder what Mahler is trying to say, but we sense the answers by intuition and listening, without the reasoning of language or specific argument; we absorb these processes directly into the bloodstream via the soundwaves. There doesn't have to be a message; yet we learn it anyway. And each of us takes away with us something of our own that leaves our inner landscape subtly but irrevocably altered. That's why we go. That's why, like Educating Rita's flatmate, we sometimes ask each other "Wouldn't you just die without Mahler?"

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Jessica Duchen
September 6th, 2010
11:09 AM
You do have some good points there, Anon, and I'd like to respond to some of them right away. First, think it should be a matter of national pride that promenaders can get standing room for the world's finest orchestras for no more than £5 a pop. Don't we want great culture for all? Why should people *have* to be able to pay more to hear such things? And I'd check the maths very carefully indeed before alleging that doubling the ticket prices would make it possible to achieve these concerts without subsidy, because my instinct is that it's unlikely to be true. Next, there would be no incredible concerts without mediocre ones to measure them against, would there...? OK - that's tongue-in-cheek, but it is in the nature of artistic endeavour of all kinds that some things will be outstanding, others will not, and you can't always guess which will be which in advance, still less weed them out accurately without giving them having a chance to develop. Here's an example: supposing, for instance, you'd decided to snuff out the existence of the CBSO some years ago because it wasn't an orchestra of the same quality of the Berlin Philharmonic? Then there would have been no orchestra for Sir Simon to transform into a top-notch band - and no Sir Simon at the helm of Berlin today. I find it alarming that people with very little understanding of the processes necessary for the development of fine artistry are going to be tightening the purse strings over our artistic organisations next month - their assumptions will probably be a heap more outrageously destructive than yours. "Achieving excellence", or whatever you want to term it, is a long-term affair: you can't just wave a magic wand and expect instant Berlin-Philness. That isn't how it works.

September 5th, 2010
8:09 PM
"Anyone who doubts the value of the BBC and publicly funded arts needs to imagine it too, by the way, because this just wouldn't be possible without them." Eh? Wouldn't it? The Berlin Phil may receive a certain amount of public subsidy, though not from us Brits. But the BBC? I fail to see how they are essential. It's clear from the queues and the tickets selling out so fast that there is huge demand for concerts of this calibre. It doesn't, surely, need the BBC to decide to programme them for the Berlin Phil to come to London and sell out the Albert Hall. The wider point, I suppose, is to ask why we publicly fund so many orchestras who don't meet this high standard, and if we want to subsidise orchestras, whether there is a better way to do that than given them all £2.5m each (in London at any rate); how can we encourage them to become as good as the Berlin Phil.? (without wanting them to be the same - every orchestra needs its own voice or reason to be around.) Further more, the high demand suggests that many would have been prepared to pay much more than they did to fill the Albert Hall. Doubling the entry costs would go a long way to making concerts like this break even or even make a profit. If that speculation holds true - that people are prepared to pay more to see top-class ensembles (and it does in other areas of life of course) - then perhaps it also holds that they would pay enough to see top-class orchestras to keep them funded without subsidy being necessary. If that is the case, then perhaps we have far too many subsidised mediocre concerts in the UK, and not enough incredible concerts made to work without subsidy.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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