Viewpoint: Melbourne Youth Orchestra Mahler 1

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Published: 17th June, 2019

Since finding out at the start of the year that the Melbourne Youth Orchestra was tackling something as monumental as a Mahler symphony, I had known that preparation would be challenging and that time would be more precious than usual. When it really sunk in, however, was when we all sat down to play the music the first time. The part was a dense black mass of detailed German instructions – and I was yet to even pencil in markings specific to our performance.

We worked, over the subsequent eight weeks, to connect each part of the huge orchestra (seven horns!) with each other as much as possible. For most, including me, this was our first time getting acquainted with what has been a part of most professional musicians’ lives for decades of countless performances. The nuance in a performance of Mahler is astounding; to be starting down that path for the first time can be rather intimidating, and it presented a new kind of challenge to our fabulous conductor, Brett Kelly. Not only did he have to try and shape these nuances to bring about a unified performance that reflected his interpretation of the work, he had to teach us Mahler-newbies the unique way that this music is performed.

As principal cello, I’m lucky enough to have one of the best seats in the house, but with it comes the responsibility to lead the section, communicate with other principals, and act as the middleman between conductor and players. Thankfully, I’d had a year of experience in this position and was feeling quite comfortable. Also, being a year 10 student at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School meant I was no stranger to ensemble playing. What I found particularly challenging this time (and all the time) was trying to unify all nine celli as much as possible. The goal is to sound like it’s all coming from one player. Both my gesture and what I wrote on the page (Brett was a great mentor in this regard) dictated how we would play as a section, and my first consideration had to be how the music fits into the other parts and what Brett wants from that section of music. I found myself so occupied that I was still putting finishing touches on bowings on the day of the concert!

Accompanying this behemoth was a colourful program of Barber’s violin concerto (with the velvety tone of Anne-Marie Johnson’s violin playing), Bernstein’s Candide Overture, and the suite from the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, each piece had a certain cinematic quality to it that tied the program together nicely.

This concert presented us with a challenge we hadn’t experienced before but brought out the best in all of us. I think we all left the stage that afternoon with a greater understanding of the scope of the world of music and, as an extension, the scope of emotion that music can express.

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Noah Lawrence was Principal Cello for the Melbourne Youth Orchestra’s Mahler 1 concert given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on June 10, 2019. Noah is currently a year 10 music student at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.