We were welcomed to one of the “more improbable lunchtime concerts ever” by James Waters, director of classical music at Horsecross: over 100 musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (rebranded from RSAMD) playing Mahler’s colossal Symphony no. 7 straight through with no interval.

Fabio Luisi © Barbara Luisi
Fabio Luisi
© Barbara Luisi

Mahler’s 7th is a huge undertaking for any orchestra, and perhaps a surprising choice for a Conservatoire to take on. Substantial conventional orchestral forces need to be augmented by two harps, mandolin, euphonium, extra horns and an astonishing array of percussion including (on and offstage) cowbells and rute (a specialist type of beater). The sheer stamina required to get through 90 minutes of complicated and passionate music is a considerable challenge for young players to sustain, and conductor Garry Walker judged his forces well with intelligent pacing throughout.

Written in five movements during a happy and successful period in Mahler’s life (1904-05), the 7th Symphony bridges the rather gloomy 6th across to the triumphal 8th (the "Symphony of a Thousand"), with an extraordinary assortment of musical styles which has puzzled performers and audiences alike since the first performance in Prague in 1908.

The first movement alone was a massive chunk of music, with a sombre beginning and solo horn setting the theme which developed into a full blown march. The second and fourth movements, both titled "Nachtmusik", provided glimpses into a night walk with cowbells and echoing horns, with some luminous playing from the large string section. The central movement was a rondo, but also with undertones of the night as Mahler contemplates a child’s fear of the dark. But the final movement brought us firmly into daylight with a C major theme referencing the overture to Die Meistersinger, and with passages allowing us glimpses ahead to the "Veni Creator" which opens the 8th Symphony.

Amongst all the considerable orchestral excitement, there were exposed passages providing plenty of opportunity for things to become unstuck, but Garry Walker guided things along with no nonsense and we were treated to some sound solo and delicate ensemble work from the players in the quieter moments. It has to be said that this was a thrilling performance. The young and enthusiastic band, given a chance to showcase the work of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland outside their Glasgow home, were clearly enjoying the dynamic and exciting acoustic of Perth Concert Hall.

For some, performing in Perth was coming home, as they had been players with the busy Perth Youth Orchestra in their schooldays. A fine example of the importance of supporting music in the curriculum and appropriate that current players were let out of school to attend this concert.

The whole of Mahler’s 7th Symphony at lunchtime was a real treat, and the large crowd who turned out for this performance were clearly very impressed. The broad infectious smiles from the orchestra players in their smart uniform of suits and single-coloured tops as they took their several bows said it all. We hope they will return to Perth again soon.

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