OUPhil Preview: Mahler and Bartók


On 2nd March, OUPhil perform their termly concert in the Sheldonian Theatre. They will be tackling Mahler’s mammoth 2nd Symphony “The Resurrection”, and Bartok’s Viola Concerto, with third-year Music student, Rachel Maxey, as soloist. We spoke to both the conductor, John Warner, and Rachel about the concert.

The OxStu: With both choir and orchestra, Mahler 2 requires enormous forces: what are the particular challenges of conducting such a vast number of people?

John Warner: The extraordinary thing about Mahler’s orchestration is that it is incredibly chamber-like. He can create huge sounds very economically, and likewise miniaturize textures using seventy or eighty people. Very rarely does he actually use the full force of the orchestral (and you really know when he does!), so that’s not really the challenge when conducting it. In many ways it’s a joy because Mahler himself was a conductor, and so it’s conductors’ music, but what is hard is making the music work in the nuanced way he wants it to. I’ve performed both the Fourth and the Fifth Symphonies in orchestrations for as little as twenty players and they work beautifully for that reason, and it was hardly any different to conduct.

The OxStu: And on a personal level, with a piece of this scale, how do you go about approaching a work like this?

JW: I’ve known the work for a few years now, and there was a time when (as I think everyone does at some point) I used to listen to it about three times a day, so I knew what the piece ‘does’ pretty well. Preparing to perform it is very different, though, because it’s all about finding out how Mahler does what he does, and working on how I can attempt to realize that. For me, the only way to do that is just hours and hours with the score. I do all my preparation in the vacation because there just isn’t the time or head-space in term-time, but once rehearsals start it’s all about being flexible and connecting with the players so we can get what we want out of it.

The OxStu: Mahler is known for the highly detailed notes he often leaves in his scores. How do you go about interpreting them, and using them for you own performance?

JW: Generally, the only reason Mahler’s scores are so detailed is because he’s trying to be clear. (Most of the time he succeeds!) Some people find it over-controlling, or that it results in over-exaggerated playing, but mostly all he’s doing is clarifying details of phrasing, balance, tempi, and so on that most conductors work on anyway, so if anything it’s actually very helpful. A huge amount of the markings (like the endless ‘don’t rush!’ and ‘don’t drag!’ ones) were put in by Mahler during rehearsals, hence he’s usually right, annoying though it may be. It does require very intense study of the score, but once you get into the mindset of how it works it’s remarkably clear. Ever bar really breathes ‘Mahler’, which is all part of the experience of performing his music.

The OxStu: You’ll also be performing the Bartok Viola Concerto with Rachel Maxey. When working on a concerto, what are the main differences in conducting with the soloist?

JW: I really love working on concerti. It’s an opportunity in this case to work on a somewhat neglected masterpiece, and to collaborate with Rachel, who is a wonderful musician (and person!). Conducting is a collaborative act as far as rehearsing and performing is concerned, but the preparation is (mostly) done alone. . With concertos, though, you get to talk in detail to someone else about the piece and to rehearse at the piano with them, so it’s fun and rewarding to be able to work on an interpretation together.

The OxStu: How do you think the Bartok and the Mahler will complement each other?

JW: For me, the Bartók is a troublesome and troubled piece. It leaves a lot left un-answered, both in the fact that when Bartók died he had only really completed the viola part (which he intended to revise), and also in that it’s just a deeply enigmatic piece in itself, completed or not. In contrast, Mahler’s symphony is an attempt at a singular earth-shattering musical statement, and one that he constantly re-worked throughout his life. It was the symphony of his that he performed most as a conductor, whereas Bartók never heard his concerto. That is not to say that the Mahler doesn’t leave questions hanging, but just that it does so in a different way. On a level of actual musical detail, both pieces also have a strong attachment to song and folk music, and it’s interesting to see how the two composers interacted with those ideas in different ways.

The OxStu: After this mammoth concert, have you got any other projects in the pipeline for this year?

JW: It’s my last term with the Philharmonia, which I am very sad about, but I will keep the St. Peter’s Chamber Orchestra going for sure. I first worked on Mahler’s music in chamber arrangements, and having now done a ‘full-size’ symphony I’d love to go back to chamber again, although not without at least a little break from Mahler(!). We’ve commissioned a ‘chamber’ Dvořák ‘New World’ Symphony for next term (after Finals…) which we’ll play alongside the Copland Clarinet Concerto with Dan Mort; I’m really excited for that one. Beyond that, I think I’ll just see what sort of repertoire people are interested in getting together and playing: we’ll see!

The OxStu: You’ve conducted a huge range of music whilst at Oxford, what does next year and post-finals hold for you?

JW: I want to conduct as a career. I love making music and working with musicians, so I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I’m planning to stay in Oxford for one more year on the MSt course, which should allow me time both to explore my interests in orchestral music (as well as continuing to work with all the wonderful musicians in the city) and decide which conservatoires I want to apply to. Teaching conducting is a relatively new practice, so there is a wide variety in the style and quality of the courses around. Like with instrumentalists, finding the right teacher and environment for learning in is very personal, and I’m also tentative to put myself out there until I’m really confident in my abilities, hence I’m biding my time. They say you’re a young conductor until you’re sixty, so I’ve got a while…

The OxStu: What for you, as the soloist, is the most exciting aspect of working with an orchestra?

Rachel Maxey: I’ve played in orchestras for as long as I can remember and as a viola player you get to really be enveloped by the sound, as you’re literally in the middle of it both physically and in terms of pitch. It’s one of the first things which actually drew me to playing the viola. Your position within the orchestra is obviously completely different when you come as a soloist, and I personally find that really exciting, because you get to see the orchestra in a whole new light. You get the power of that amazing orchestral sound, and it’s all there to support you and engage with you- it’s a really incredible feeling. I also really enjoy working with an orchestra that I’ve played in throughout my degree, so I know a lot of the players, and hopefully it means that there’s a real personal connection there as we all work on it together.

The OxStu: There are obviously fairly few viola concerti in the repertoire – do you think there are any interesting ways in which Bartok writes idiomatically for the instrument in this concerto?

RM: The concerto was originally written for William Primrose, who was an amazing viola player in the twentieth century. Primrose actually approached Bartok about composing the work, and at first Bartok was reluctant and sceptical- could the viola really be a solo instrument? It was only after hearing Primrose perform one of the only other major viola concertos, the Walton viola concerto, that he realised the potential of the instrument. Primrose encouraged Bartok to write as virtuosically as he liked, as high as he liked, as fast as he liked- he should not “feel in any way proscribed by the apparent technical limitations of the instrument” And it’s fair to say that Bartok took him up on that challenge. That being said, Bartok did say that he was particularly keen on exploring the distinctive tenor register of the viola and avoid excessive use of the really high register, even if it was technically possible to reach the stratospheric heights used in violin concertos.

The OxStu: Performing a concerto is obviously very different from orchestral playing, even solo sonatas, how do you prepare differently for performing with an orchestra?

RM: I’ve played the Bartok a lot with the piano reduction, and I think you have to approach it completely differently when you’re preparing to play with an orchestra. Having an awareness of the orchestration is really helpful for this, knowing what orchestral colours you need to match or play against can help decide how you should play certain passages. Also you need to think about balance and how you can make sure that you’re always heard clearly against the orchestra. I think one other issue is just making sure that you’re completely on it and you have a really clear idea of the tempi you want, because there’s a lot more flexibility when playing with a pianist. If you make an error it’s easy for a pianist to adjust to you- the chain of communication is a lot longer with an orchestra, and although they’re all wonderful musicians who are sensitive and will listen and adjust, it’s best to try not to make their lives too difficult.

The OxStu: What’s the most technically difficult part of approaching Bartok?

RM: It’s not so much a technical difficulty, but really getting into his harmonic language can be quite difficult when you’re first approaching it, and trying to forge a convincing interpretation of that language in terms of phrasing, rubato, vibrato- it definitely takes a while to find it. On top of that, the Bartok explores registers of the viola very rarely seen in solo repertoire, and really getting those high notes to ring is also a challenge.

The OxStu: …And expressively/interpretively?

RM: There’s no doubt about it, it’s a physically and technically demanding piece, but in many ways it’s actually more demanding of you emotionally. As Bartok’s last and unfinished work, it is possible to hear both a personal suffering and a wider suffering for his home country of Hungary, which he had had to leave during the war due to his strongly held anti-fascist political views. At the same time, it is also a piece with a surprising amount of happiness and youthfulness, and as a performer you have to capture both of these.

The OxStu: Any exciting future performance dates?

RM: This is my last big performance before I start my finals, so it’s going to be a big celebration for me that I’m really looking forward to. It’s also really exciting because it happens to be my 21st birthday on the day of the concert, so I’ll be celebrating that as well. The next time I’ll be performing any solo music will be for my finals performance examination in June. After that, I’m looking forward to a summer of international music making, including an orchestral tour to Barcelona with Oxford Millennium Orchestra and a tour to Austria as guest soloist with the Romsey Youth Choir.

The OxStu: You’ve been offered places at a number of brilliant conservatoires for postgraduate study, have you made any final decisions on plans for next year?

RM: So I’ve accepted my place at Royal Academy so I’ll be heading there next year, which is really exciting. I’m really looking forward to being in London, although of course I’ll miss Oxford loads. I have no idea what I want to do after that, I’m just planning on making the most of those two years and getting involved with as many different projects as possible and hopefully I’ll get a bit more of an idea about the sort of area I want to work in.


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