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Violent Symphonies

  • July 28, 2005

By Lisa Ho

Listening to Gustav Mahler’s 6th symphony (a.k.a. “Tragic”) performed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of maestro Kees Bakels was, for me, a personal confrontation with an old fear that I have battled with on and off for many years.

I am more a Wagner enthusiast, and certainly no Mahler fan. My avoidance of works by Mahler is the result of a nasty violent experience with an ex-friend who madly worshipped Mahler as his god and hero. This ex-friend’s favourite symphony was Mahler’s number 6 and it had a profound effect on him. I was punched repeatedly one calm evening many years ago outside my landlady’s house in full view of the neighbours for no reason other than that he was depressed for more than two weeks after having listened continuously to that very symphony. He told me without remorse that he had to vent his frustrations at me. This was because he saw himself as a messianic martyr bearing the grim weight of humanity’s manifold sins upon his shoulders. I later encountered other men who adore Mahler’s music to the exclusion of other composers’ music and have found them in possession of similar tendencies and characteristics. So my fear and distrust of Mahler’s music bloomed.

Thus went I for the closing concert of the MPO 04/05 season on 16 July, 2005, with a sense of apprehension. I did not want to bump into the ex-friend (who would have obviously gone to anything Mahler) but I wanted to find out how I would react to a live performance of a work, which was even deemed diabolical and nihilistic by critics when they first heard it. I have listened to the 6th symphony several times on CDs after the punch-up in an attempt to find out if I would be affected by the music in the same violent way. Maybe being female makes me somewhat impervious to the dark, martial influences of Mahler’s music, which has always been said to be “very male” in the sort of primordial way and very appealing to many male listeners.

Mahler’s 6th symphony was severely criticised when it was first performed. Arnold Schoenberg deemed it banal and said that “banal means rustic, signifying a retarded state of culture.” The raw maleness of the symphonic work itself with the inclusion of the three hammer blows (Mahler wrote the part of the sledgehammer blows to symbolise the falling of the axe of Fate upon life) and its sheer size is naked machismo in your face, blackly brooding, defensive and completely unironic – picture Sylvester Stallone with his beefcake bulges and barely comprehensible infantile grunts, raining punches and spraying bullets indiscriminately across the screen.

That said, I felt that the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra did rather well in bringing out that sense of the primitive and the essential rawness of this symphony. The piece was testosterone-charged; the orchestra significantly bulked up like Rocky, with two timpanists pounding away magnificently. I counted nine horns from where I was seated (although I think Mahler wrote for 8 horns), but as I am partial to anyone who plays the horn, the more the nobler. There were also two harpists and a whole array of percussive instruments – cowbells, birch twigs, a snare drum, the holzklapper, cymbals of varying sizes, a glockenspiel, a xylophone, the whip, a celesta and a massive sledgehammer. This may sound like S&M, but that’s how Mahler scored his symphony. It is this sheer unorthodoxy and size that gives his music the violence and power of the grotesquely grandiose. With the wail of the violins and the screaming woodwinds, interspersed with the cacophony of trumpets and tuba, propelled by an almost uncontrollable driving bass, maestro Kees Bakels unleashed the force of a relentless destiny that seeks to annihilate the very music from which it emerged, and to devour life’s expressions. I felt a sense of intense but quiet desperation throughout the performance. Even in the quieter and slow sections, I was distinctly edgy and fed-up.

The highlight of the concert was the hammer blows which Gerald Novak, principal of the percussion section, executed. Each time he had to use the hammer, he went upstairs to the organ loft and a spotlight was trained on him. He waited there calmly, as the music swirled about like the approach of a thunderstorm. Then he picked up what looked like a giant mallet and raised it above his head slowly, deliberately. With a Mephistophelian look of calculated darkness, he swung the hammer down (probably onto a platform specially built for this purpose – somehow, I can’t imagine that the DFP would allow the hammer to crash onto the nice floor upstairs) and the sound effect was shocking, to say the least.

The first hammer thud reverberated throughout the concert hall and woke whoever was sleeping during the long performance. The immediacy of the mighty thud calls to the fore the unexpected blow that Fate deals to man in order to subjugate his will. The second blow from the hammer is the act of crushing the spirit and the final blow is death itself, without the hope of redemption or renewal. Each time Gerald brought the sledgehammer crashing down, the weight and force of the blows were significantly calculated and refined to a point that vastly different sounds were produced for each hammer blow. There was something astonishingly primal about the way he did it and so he deserved the flowers the conductor presented to him that evening.

To me, there is no charm, wit or irony in Mahler’s music; not in the Mozart or Bruckner sort of way. The brute force behind it left me completely drained and exhausted by the end of the performance. My ex-friend was of the opinion that listening to Mahler’s 6th was like having one’s senses raped. I recoiled in horror when he said that. Maybe, he is right. And even if he isn’t right, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra has managed to convey Mahler’s tragic vision and violent hopelessness without the use of irony or subtlety. What I question now is the choice of this piece and why it was performed at the close of the 04/05 season and as a sort of “farewell” concert for maestro Kees Bakels after having spent his 8 years here in KL. Why not Mahler’s 1st or 5th? Is there, ironically, an ironic statement in this, after all – a recalling of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’?

Beethoven’s Monsterpiece

Speaking of the ironic and the violent, I also managed to attend the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the London Philharmonic Choir (LPO) on 18 Jun, 2005, which I found to be ironic in the light of the latest spate of bombing, violence and terror in London.

Practically everyone knows the famous “Ode to Joy” (An die Freude), being the Finale of the symphony, sung with four soloists and a chorus. In Japan, it’s like their second national anthem. Around the world, it is a popular ring tone on mobile phones. It is also the feature tune for at least two ultra-violent films: Luc Besson’s Leon (a.k.a. The Professional) and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It seems rather frightening how this symphonic choral masterpiece can become a “monsterpiece” so twisted when madmen like Stansfield in Leon and Alex in A Clockwork Orange sing and use it to drive their passion for mayhem, rape and murder.

The concert opened with the overture to Beethoven’s Fidelio, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted this time by maestro Jaap van Zweden. There was a distinctly different overall sound to the orchestra under his baton. The phrases were tighter and there was more fluidity in the general sense of rhythm. The normally silvery string sounds became a little more golden, warm and less wild.

Then Helen Medlyn, the Kiwi mezzo-soprano, performed the Alto Rhapsody by Johannes Brahms. I did not care much for her singing because it lacked the emotional depth of melancholia that should have been properly conveyed through the piece (Brahms’realisation that he could never marry Clara, Robert Schumann’s wife is deeply expressed in this composition). The male chorus of the LPO, however, sang splendidly. The quiet expression of comfort was a contrast to the despondence the first two stanzas were supposed to convey, and the men sang in warm full tones, maintaining a solemn wonder, which would have been quite magical, except that the mezzo spoilt it for them. Helen Medlyn has a lovely voice. However, beauty alone without grace and depth of thought is at best ordinary, and at worst, vulgar. When I applauded, I applauded with irony, and hoped that she did better the previous evening.

After the interval came the 9th symphony by Beethoven, which maestro Jaap van Zweden took at a quicker tempo than I was used to. This was like a breath of bracing fresh air because it offered the sweeping perspective of pure exhilaration and the race of adrenaline, as one anticipated the climax when the chorus would sing the famous “Ode to Joy”. The orchestra played in perfect synchrony not only in sense of time but in momentum and energy, a feat very few conductors can coax out of a cumbersome entity of ninety or more musicians. Then the baritone Matthew Best began Friedrich Schiller’s famous declamation, asking for a replacement of funereal tones with more joyful sounds. Best was joined by Patrick Power, another Kiwi whose tenor voice was pleasantly clangy, like the ringing of a distant bell, as well as Helen Medlyn the mezzo-soprano and Margaret Medlyn the soprano. Helen Medlyn was drowned out by the other three singers during the ensemble singing. But what I objected to was the brash stridency of Margaret Medlyn’s voice that violently assailed my ears with unrelenting harshness especially on all the high notes that even the choir and the orchestra could not assist in toning down. Margaret Medlyn is no Kirsten Flagstad, although she would undoubtedly do quite well as a Valkyrie in Wagner’s Ring. I personally felt that the otherwise excellent performance by both the London Philharmonic Choir and the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was marred by the poor choice of women soloists.

What I found highly ironic in this performance of Beethoven’s brilliant work is encapsulated in the two stanzas that the London Philharmonic Choir sang about a single brotherhood. This stood in stark contrast to the recent explosions in London, which were calculated to divide and encourage hatred some 3 weeks after this performance in KL. Schiller wrote:

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium;
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt:
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.”


“Joy, you beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium;
We approach your holy sanctuary
Filled with fiery rapture!

Your magic unites again
Whatever custom has forcefully parted
All men shall be brothers
Where your tender wings are spread.”*

* Translation into English mine, including mistakes, if any.

And while Beethoven’s 9th symphony is nothing like Mahler’s 6th – one is glorious, the other, grandiose – I wonder if there is a common link. How is it that both have the same immense propensity to inspire beauty and noble values as well as aggression and violence?


Lisa Ho conducts the infamous Cantus Musicus and is an alumnus of the Goethe Institute Inter Nasiones.

First Published: 28.07.2005 on Kakiseni