In ten days the Sinfonietta, the youth orchestra I founded two years ago, will do a very daring thing — it will play its first Mahler symphony. It's daring because no group of 12-23-year-olds in this country has ever attempted such a feat - the closest was the Silpakorn Music Camp's recent performance of Mahler's First, but that was a performance by kids and faculty, with the section leaders all being reliable professionals including a former concertmaster of the London Philharmonic.
There will only be two "seasoned professionals" in this performance: myself and Nancy Yuen, one of Asia's leading sopranos, who will sing the solo in the final movement, which represents a child's vision of heaven.
Mahlerians always say that Mahler's Fourth Symphony is "about childhood", but I think that when people hear that it evokes idyllic and pastoral images ... sort of like a Ray Bradbury short story, or like the blandishments of Coal Miner's Daughter — "We were poor but we had love" and all that.
Such visions may sustain a short story or a song, but an entire symphony must dig deeper into the raw material, because a symphony more like a novel than a short story; it is a journey you must take, with characters you must empathize and identify with, that must lead to some of resolution and denouement.
I've been talking to the kids a lot about this raw material because you cannot really play this music without understanding the nature of the journey. When I play a classical work with them, I can talk about tonal relationships, about harmonic tension, and so on. Of course, I can and do talk about those things in Mahler, but one can't get away from Mahler himself or from the autobiographical view of art.
This "child's-eye-view" of the universe in Mahler's Fourth Symphony is neither simple nor innocent. It's reality and fantasy, seen through the eyes of excessively bright child who doesn't miss a thing, and who never looks away, no matter how great the anguish.
Children believe themselves to be immortal, but even in this most pastoral of Mahler's symphonies death lurks in every corner. Of Mahler's many siblings, six died when they were children. You must imagine the pub where Mahler grew up. The town of Jihlava (or Iglau as it was then called) was a Sprachinsel, a German-speaking island in a Czech-speaking ocean. Mahler's house, too, was a Sprachinsel, because the language of the house was mammeloschen — Yiddish. So an island inside an island then, and from this island, every so often, emerges the coffin of a small child ... as drunken soldiers party in the beer hall. This is Gustl's childhood — one in which the solemnity of death, with its muffled drumbeat funeral marches, plays out against the background of crazed klezmer music.
It was a home in which Mahler's father abused his mother and slept with the help ... a home from which the boy would sometimes flee in tears, only to run into the raucous blare of a military band or an organ grinder churning out a folk tune.
Next to this cacophonous world stood a forest, and it was in this forest that Mahler discovered a silence so profound that it seemed to contain within it the moment before creation. It is out of this silence that the First Symphony begins. It's from this silence that the eight horns of the Third Symphony burst, with a roar that is like the Big Bang itself. It is into this silence that the Ninth Symphony dissolves as Mahler finally comes to terms with what St. Francis called "our sister, bodily death."
Mahler's childhood world then is no utopia. It's a world where beauty and terror dwell side by side. These are fairy tales where people really die. In one song, a boy faces the hangman, not knowing why. In another — the song that closes this symphony — a child dreams about what heaven must be like, and it's all about food. But it's not just a soothing manna raining down; to feed the angels, King Herod stands ready to slaughter the lambs. Irony runs through even this, the most ostensibly naive of Mahler's works.
So ... though this symphony is "about" being a child ... it is far from being a "childish" work. In fact, one wonders whether the young can really comprehend its complexities and its richness. Yet I think it is very important for young people to have a go at these multi-layered masterpieces. If indeed it takes a lifetime to understand any work of genius, then it's never too young to start trying to understand it.