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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Promming with Mahler

Martin "Whooshing" in front of the Toledo, Spain historic city center from across the Tagus River

I was supposed to see this symphony a year ago. I had snagged early on my coveted pair of tickets for the DSO’s performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, Resurrection, at the end of its 2009-2010 season. I spent a good portion of that spring awaiting what would be a sonic epic that would combine orchestra and voice (many of them) to paint Mahler’s profound views of life, death, and beyond, perhaps not without certain key references to the Passion. I was going to experience catharsis and illumination on a level that might have been divine.
Instead I spent that weekend on the forward deck of the Carnival Ecstasy, happy to be with family, but continually amused at the strange twists of fate that led to me voyaging to exotic Caw-zuh-mel, Mecksikoh, surrounded by what could best described as the space liner from Wall-E without the merciful Pixar gloss and the Disney guarantee that people who looked like they ate other people would remain reasonably clothed. People boarded as passengers and left as cargo. 
Past misanthropy aside, I was electrified at the chance to see Mahler’s Resurrection symphony live in London as part of the BBC Proms. The BBC Proms is the world’s largest classical musical festival and consists of concerts by the world’s best soloists, chamber groups, choirs, and orchestras over two months from July through September. In fact, it’s still going on right now. Normally, most seats are expensive and sell quickly. For BBC Prom 29, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela were performing. They premiered to incredible popular and critical acclaim in 2007. Just watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZbJOE9zNjw They’re a youth conductor and youth orchestra. Yes, no one in that video nor anyone who performed on August 5th was over the age of 30. I’ll let that sink in.

The seats for BBC Prom 29, featuring that orchestra performing Mahler’s Resurrection, sold out in three hours. But for every concert, especially the popular ones, there are roughly 500 tickets for the arena floor that sold the day of the concert for 5 pounds. Yes, 5 pounds. So what do you have to do get one? Just wait in line outside of Royal Albert Hall the day of the concert like I did.

The queue stretched down to the end of the street, turned and kept on stretching, stretched some more, and eventually some thousand people later, looped back to Royal Albert Hall.
I got in line at around noon, resigning to the reality that I would get no sight-seeing done for the day and that a return to London early before heading stateside would be necessary. I brought lunch, water, and a book. We were given numbers at around 2:00 so that we could have up to a half hour to leave the line and get food, take breaks, or just wander and smirk at those behind us in line. Because Royal Albert Hall is across from the Royal College of Music, I was treated to a rehearsal by a brass ensemble class that used a classroom with open windows. I also spent a good part of the afternoon (the one afternoon where London was actually sunny/hot; lucky me) thinking about life, perhaps the best way to preface a performance of something like Mahler.
At around 5:30, I saw another queue form to the confusion to nearly everyone in line.  
Turns out it was just the queue for the preconcert lecture. Naturally it was full of the older and wealthier patrons who managed to get actual seats during that lucky three hour window during which I was likely still asleep in Texas. 

Finally, at 7:00, I had my ticket. From the moment of entering the arena floor onward, I really can’t describe any actual emotions other than, “Woah, this is really happening.” Royal Albert Hall itself is just as gorgeous on the inside as on the outside. Like many others with me, I took off my shoes and kept them off as we stood for the entire two hour performance.

The performance itself? It was as grand, dramatic, intense, beautiful, and divine as you’d expect from a composition of its scope, if another were to exist. I have a hard time reviewing it, despite having heard it three times, because it’s a piece to evaluated based on an individual’s spiritual reaction to it, not just the technical skill. Just start here and make your own judgments: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oi7kb4U7VsE&feature=related It’s worth your time, especially when you’re at the last movement and reading the lyrics, which can have profound personal import. Just watch it. Trust me.
My only qualms would be about the acoustics of the Hall. The choral work and the off-stage brass/percussion resonated with clarity and wonderful color. When the entire 500+ person ensemble of mega-orchestra (3 sets of timpani, anyone?), full choir, off-stage corps, organ, and voice soloists played loudly in unison, the Hall worked magnificently, allowing each timbre to come through despite the massive volume. Yet during passages of lower dynamics, the group sounded a bit watery and muddled, a fault I attribute to my location on the arena floor and not the playing itself. Still, it made me miss the Meyerson’s modern and peerless acoustics. 

When Dudamel ended the final climax, we treated them to the longest and loudest standing ovation (okay, 500 of us were already standing) I’ve ever participated in, a good 20 minutes.

There was a great sense of camaraderie among us in the arena. Everyone was willing to take photos for each other (including the one of me at the top) and unlike most DSO concerts I’ve been to, strangers freely talked about the performance. In a way, perhaps, the concert made us better people for a time. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last time I go to a Proms concert, but I’ll definitely try to snag tickets next time to avoid the fun (but maybe once-only) adventure of waiting seven hours in line. 

Martin Whooshing from the arena floor of the Royal Albert Hall after BBC Prom 29