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The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

Probably the most important distinguishing feature of this year’s Mahler in Manchester festival at The Bridgewater Hall is the coupling of each of the Mahler symphonies to a newly commissioned work.

Predictably (and as requested in the commission brief), many of the composers have chosen to use the occasion to comment on, confront, contradict, parody, reassess, re-contextualize or generally give a shout-out to the music of Mahler. One of the works I’ve been following a bit more closely as it gets close to its premiere is Edward Gregson’s Dream Song, to be premiered this Saturday, the 27th of March by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by their principal conductor, Gianandrea Noseda.

I first got to know Eddie’s music only last year when I was asked to conduct his Trombone Concerto (just recorded for Chandos- buy it) by the Wilmslow Symphony- Eddie is, among many other projects and titles, their president and they were keen to showcase some of his music with their excellent principal trombonist Gareth Brown. Writing a trombone concerto is no easy feat- there have been some exciting additions to the repertoire in the last 25 years, but previous attempts have been more infamous than beloved. Most are, I regret to report, quite dull. The medium presents a huge challenge for the composer-  to find enough variety of timbre and texture both for the solo instrument and the orchestra and to give the trombone an adequate range of expression and character to keep the audience’s attention. To my surprise, this piece did all of that with spectacular ease. The composer was also kind enough to come to rehearsal and was extremely helpful and constructive- it was a rewarding collaboration.

With this recent experience in mind, I was curious about Eddie’s take on Mahler. Early reports were encouraging- one of my first friends to see the score emailed me discretely “masterful craftsmanship…  he really knows his Mahler….”

Gregson’s Dream Song is being paired with Mahler 6, and thus, his piece can be read very directly as a comment on that work- most of the thematic material comes either directly or indirectly from Mahler 6.

In fact, Gregson uses a word somewhat stronger than “comment” to describe Dream Song’s connection with Mahler 6.  “My own approach in tackling the 6th has been to “invade” Mahler’s world of musical ideas; indeed, the title of my work, Dream Song, is intended to portray a half-remembered landscape of themes and motives, fragmented (or deconstructed) as if in a dream, with the all-pervading presence of the opening phrase of the so-called “Alma” theme from the first movement, which I use as a kind of leitmotif.”

There are other thematic fragments in play as well- the “upwardly soaring violin passage and the theme which grows OUT of it from the opening of the final movement, as well as two short motives from the Scherzo: the rising arpeggio figure associated with the woodwind and the falling minor-thirds dance-like motive.” Gregson goes on to clarify their function- “These are not used as acts of homage, but as reference points.”

Ken: Eddie, there are all kinds of interesting examples of later composers quoting, referencing or deconstructing Mahler. On one extreme, you have a piece like the Berio Sinfonia which seems want to give the “Mahler” material a more or less entirely new meaning by putting it in a totally alien sound world, and on the other extreme you have a work like Shostakovich 10, where in the first movement, the 2nd theme is a quote of Urlicht “Der Mensch liegt in grosster Noth! Der Mensch liegt in groster Pein!” (“Man lies in greatest need! Man lies in greatest pain!”). Here it seems like Shostakovich is using the Mahler material to carry a literal meaning from a work with text into an instrumental one- rather than giving the material a new meaning in an alien context, it is using existing material to hint at or emphasize hidden meanings. Where do you see your piece in this continuum? Is the “ Alma ” theme still the “ Alma ” theme in your piece? Does its meaning evolve as you re-develop it?

Edward Gregson: I hope my work is a slightly different take on Mahler from the two distinguished composers you mention. Berio causes real dislocation by his Mahler quotes, mainly because, as you say, he places Mahler in the context of ‘a totally alien sound world’. Shostakovich was always an inheritor of the Mahler tradition, as he combines hugely disparate musical ideas and places them within long symphonic structures. The Tenth could be seen as a parallel to Mahler 6 (the symphony I’m paired with) as it is almost consistently tragic. Even the final movement, when we finally hear E major in a  prolonged way, is a kind of forced optimism; not surprisingly really when you consider he wrote it under Stalin’s despotic regime – how could one be optimistic when the whole basis of that society had disintegrated into the worst kind of totalitarianism, and no way out, or positive future, seemed possible (at least until Stalin died). As we know, Shostakovich kept the symphony from being performed until that happened! Incidentally, isn’t it ironic that Prokofiev (another victim of the Stalinist cultural purges) died on the same day as Stalin!

Anyway, back to Dream Song. My language is certainly much closer to Mahler’s world – intentionally so – and as for the Alma connection, well her presence, or rather that of her theme runs through the whole work. However, it is mainly by subtle suggestion, as the rising four notes at the beginning of her theme is integrated into my own thematicism. When you say that most of my thematic material is taken from Mahler 6, that is partly true, but not entirely so. It is the starting point, and I take off from that point, if you see what I mean. Alma ’s theme is transformed into something different, but still connected, at the end of Dream Song. The Liebeslied (or Love Song) uses the retrograde of her theme (with a bit of cheating here and there to get it how I wanted) and transforms it into something else, although one can still eerily detect Mahler there all the time. The work ends with the rising four notes of her theme imitatively exchanged between two piccolos and then 1st and 2nd violins, before drifting into silence.

Ken: The flip side of this is that, as we’ve already been discussing in this series, Mahler was an almost obsessive shouter-outer, quoting and referencing other works all the time, whether they be Brahms, Rott, Beethoven, or any of many others. Where you tempted to not only play with some of his themes but with some of his techniques for transforming pre-existing themes?

Edward Gregson: Exactly! You’ve got it in one! That’s exactly what I do. It’s an interesting compositional journey to undertake, and I would never have written a work like this, except for the specifics of the commission and the context of its first performance.

Ken: How about orchestration? Are you in anyway commenting on or deconstructing Mahler’s sound world in this piece, or is the orchestration completely your own voice?

Edward Gregson: No, once again, I partly invade Mahler’s sound world. However, by using colours such as harmon mutes on the brass, as well as a number of ‘modern’ percussion instruments (eg Steel pans, vibraphone, crotales etc) I’ve referenced a more contemporary sound world.

Ken: I’m told that in addition to the Mahler quotes, which form much of the musical DNA, there is a little shout-out to Stravinsky as well. Can you explain?

Edward Gregson: Well, it occurred to me that in my Scherzo there is a moment when the music needed an injection of something different, so I use a repetitive, irregular-pulsed rhythmic section (quite unlike anything Mahler would have done) which I have described as Stravinsky peeping his head round the corner, and with that famous cheeky grin of his saying,‘ well, that’s enough of all this post-romantic, angst-ridden, self indulgent rubbish; out of the window it goes and welcome to  my new musical world!’ One should remember that at the time of Mahler’s death in 1911 that was exactly what was happening. Petrushka was about to be premiered and the musical world would be shattered two year’s later by the premiere of The Rite of Spring. No composer after that would be unaffected by its influence. So, my reference (not actually a quote, more a suggestion) is just a little joke really. But strangely it doesn’t sound out of place because hopefully by then Mahler’s thematic fragments have been absorbed into my own musical world.

Ken: Thanks for chatting. I’m excited to hear the premiere

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