During a recent rehearsal of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Hugh Wolff, the Stanford and Norma Jean Calderwood director of orchestras at New England Conservatory, stopped to point something out to the students who play in the Philharmonia, the school’s flagship orchestra. It was a violin melody near the end of the piece, arising at a point where the music becomes increasingly ethereal and fragmentary.
That melody, Wolff told the young musicians, is a quote from an earlier Mahler song cycle called “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Deaths of Children”). The words at that moment translate roughly as “we’ll meet them again on these heights in the sunshine.” Wolff added that the composer’s daughter had died a couple of years before he began writing the symphony.
The room quickly became very quiet. “Their faces just turned ashen,” Wolff said during a recent interview. “The shock and sadness were palpable.”
Moments like these exemplify the experience of guiding a student orchestra through Mahler’s final completed symphony, a valedictory work that cycles through resignation, longing, bitterness, and, at its end, a fragile transcendence. While performances by professional orchestras are relatively frequent, the piece’s musical and emotional demands make it a rarity for student groups. Wolff is leading the Philharmonia through the piece for the second time, for a Jordan Hall performance on Nov. 29.The first performance was in April 2015, and Wolff was careful not to assign any of the students from that concert in the present performance, to ensure that the experience was fresh for the entire orchestra.
“You try to program those works when kids are in school, so that they get a glimpse of what the big challenges are,” Wolff said, adding that pieces by Shostakovich and Stravinsky generate a similar response. And the students are eager. “Kids today are not intimidated by Mahler in a way we might have been 20 or 30 years ago.”
For some of them, though, the assignment ends up being more challenging than they bargained for. The Ninth, Wolff said, “is complex technically, it’s complex contrapuntally, and it’s complex emotionally. And it’s long and tiring and requires tremendous concentration, often just at the moments when you’re tempted to say, ‘Oh, OK, we can relax here for a minute.’ ”
It isn’t easy for a conductor either, of course, and many wait until later in life, when lessons both musical and existential have perhaps been learned, before tackling it. Wolff held off until his 40s; and during a guest conducting stint in Hamburg in 1999, he heard the Berlin Philharmonic play the Ninth under Claudio Abbado. It was a revelation. “I was completely blown away,” he remembered. “And from that moment I thought, OK, I’ve got to get inside this piece. I’ve waited on this one — now it’s time.”
As a teacher, Wolff is a deeply practical musician, and many of the challenges he described involved in playing the Ninth have a pragmatic cast to them. How to discern, amid the thicket of counterpoint, when to play forward and when to lay back, something that Mahler’s textures often make unclear. How to navigate the almost violent series of fast notes in the third movement, all of them loud. How to decide which of the symphony’s many climaxes to really go for, and which to hang back on. How to sustain the string sound without causing strain on the players’ bow arms.
And there is the difficulty of building up the students’ sense for the singular span and difficulty of the music when the rehearsals are spread out over a couple of weeks, a less concentrated schedule than professional orchestras enjoy. “That’s something you can’t really stop to explain – you have to let them absorb that information by running through vast swaths of music even though it might not be technically correct yet, so that they’re getting a feel for it,” Wolff explained. “And then you go back and fix things, but remember that if you break this piece into 30-second chunks it will never hang together.”
For all that, though, the deepest, and ultimately the most satisfying challenges, come when the young players get a sense of how the music reaches out beyond the notes, beyond the practical difficulties. After explaining the “Kindertotenlieder” reference, listening to the silence in the room that day, Wolff said, “I realized, this truly means something. They get it. Suddenly they have a responsibility to create that feeling.”
Hugh Wolff, conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 9
At Jordan Hall, Nov. 29, 7:30 p.m. Free. 617-585-1260, www.necmusic.edu/event/7436David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fol-low him on Twitter @davidgweininger