Ben Zander: Mahler 6 and the Philharmonia

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

Benjamin Zander is talking about how to perform the hammer blows that punctuate the huge finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. “I think I’ve now alighted on a suitable method and that’s to wallop a timpani case with a hollow piece of piping. The Sixth is such a deliberately gigantic work, cast in four vast movements, but unlike with most other symphonies, the real weight of the argument exists in the half-hour final movement. You might say this forms the symphony’s tragic apotheosis, stated most emphatically of all by the three hammer blows, each one of them no doubt intended to convey another cruel twist of fate.”

This Tuesday at the Royal Festival Hall Zander conducts Mahler 6 with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Not just a concert though. First, at 6p.m, Zander will be on the RFH’s platform to give an extensive pre-concert talk. “I really enjoy engaging with the audience first, preparing both themselves and myself for the pleasures ahead. Music is such an amorphous art form, capable of conveying all sorts of profundities, emotional, intellectual, what have you. Naturally and appealingly we’ll never know exactly what it is trying to convey but, with some foresight, we might suggest something of what it could be aiming at. This is why I find talking to an audience such a rewarding experience. It’s a communion – we’re not coming to the thing cold, but sharing.”

Zander will be sharing after the concert too. As well as chatting he’ll be signing copies of his latest CD, another Mahler symphony, the Fifth, also with the Philharmonia, which Zander describes as a “great and fine-sounding orchestra,” and particularly admires its ability to “know exactly when to hold back and when to let rip. Mahler Six can maybe begin to sound almost too overblown, but it’s not sheer noise that Mahler is going for, rather the vast range of expression available from such forces. It’ll certainly be a great pleasure to conduct the Philharmonia again.”

Zander likens himself to “a sort of guide” to help listeners “find a way in or way through. So when we come to the performance itself, it’s then that the music becomes more alive, hopefully reminding the listener of how I mentioned this or that aspect and the whole falls in place and comes together in a far more satisfying manner.”

If such a vast piece as Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is potentially daunting, why not go along and hear Zander bring it to life verbally first and then hear it with the Philharmonia Orchestra? “It promises to be a grand evening. As I like to keep saying, a grand evening of sharing the musical experience.”

  • Benjamin Zander talks about Mahler Six in the RFH at 6p.m (admission free)
  • The concert starts at 7.30
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Book online:
  • Post-concert, Zander will sign copies of his new release, Mahler’s Fifth, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Available on Telarc. Watch out for a Classical Source review

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