Freelance orchestral musicians were early victims of the pandemic as live performance ceased. Many struggled, some left the profession, new graduates from conservatories faced uncertainty. So this special concert saw the debut of the Proms Festival Orchestra, made up entirely from our leading freelance musicians. So the first hero of the evening was Hannah Bates. Listed in the programme as Orchestral Personnel Manager, she it was who made the calls to assemble these 78 musicians (as named in the programme). Her contact list should be insured by the Association of British Orchestras.

Mark Wigglesworth conducts the Proms Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But getting skilled and experienced orchestral personnel together with the right score on the stands, does not suddenly create an orchestra or a good performance. Would allowances have to be made? Many of the players would have played Mahler's Fifth Symphony before, but never all together on one platform. The conductor would have had fairly limited time with them. It is not surprising that there was the odd orchestral smudge, or if a strand of Mahler’s busy counterpoint went missing. There were only a couple of moments when, as Sir Henry Wood, whose bust loomed above them, would say “the ensemble ain’t together, gentlemen”! Well it is hard to be together when safety requires you to be apart, and spread over a vast space that must reduce conducting, at times, to traffic control. And what are the consequences of every player being at a single desk, impeding sectional unity and shared page-turning? Given these obstacles, this was remarkable playing and conducting.

Mark Wigglesworth
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Mark Wigglesworth took it all in his stride, dispensed with a score and trusted his musicians, and gave a real performance. He directed a traditional interpretation, without idiosyncrasy, but no lack of passion, and refined phrasing in the frequent lyrical passages. After a stirring opening fanfare, the funeral march was indeed “like a cortège” as marked, its tread solemn and poignant. The fiery passage erupted with the wildness Mahler calls for, before the threnody returned with still greater eloquence. The second movement has a dangerous marking; “Stormy. With utmost vehemence”. Wigglesworth observed this without impairing the sense of a narrative line, in this movement leading to an outline of the chorale that will close the work, a brief glimpse of the final triumph still 40 minutes away.

The Proms Festival Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Adagietto is an interpretative touchstone, since it responds to such a range of tempi. Mahler’s ‘heirs’, Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg, knowing this to be a love letter to Mahler’s wife, kept it flowing for about seven minutes. Later it became more lament than love letter, stretched to eleven or twelve minutes by Bernstein and Karajan. Here Wigglesworth’s middle course of just under nine minutes, managed to have it both ways, with sensitively moulded and responsive string playing. The finale swept all before it, capped by a blazing apotheosis. Many instrumental solos shone, as they must in Mahler, but the conductor understandably brought two players to their feet, lead trumpet Chris Evans and first horn Laurence Davies, both accorded the Promenaders’ roar of approval

A spectacular account of Shostakovich’s jubilant Festive Overture had opened the concert, perhaps a reference to this “Festival Orchestra”. Or perhaps also to its origins in 1954, when Stalin’s passing suggested a “new normal” was about to dawn. May it be so for these indispensable contributors to our musical life.