Paris. Attacks, Mahler, collaboration

I started writing this only a few days after the attacks here on 13 November. Until now I hesitated to put it on my blog because for me what happened is far too serious for that.

However, it seems that not one of us who is fortunate enough to live here can really go on with life, as we must, without pausing to reflect, and to register what has happened. And so even this little blog will be touched by these events — though this small contribution will only be based on my little corner of life, classical music.

P1080483Like many people here, I am still really at a loss as to what to say about the attacks. However, I keep finding myself reflecting on the way that musicians are able to identify a greater good, and can put their differences to one side in order to try to achieve it. The more I think about it, the more I think that there might be advantages in this for everyone, and in all aspects of our lives.

This thought came to me because exactly a week before the attacks, even to the hour, I was listening to a remarkable performance of the sixth symphony of Mahler given by the Orchestre Philharmonique of Radio France conducted by Myung-Whun Chung.

The performance was exceptional because it was an extraordinary collaboration, not only between the members of the orchestra, but between the orchestra and the conductor. In fact, I have rarely seen anything like it. Here I saw a conductor who was leading the orchestra in such a way that the conception of the music was genuinely created together.

It was clear that although he was guiding the progress of the music, he was also listening carefully to the musicians and subtly adjusting the interpretation to incorporate the particular way in which they played each part, whether it was the tone colour of a melody given by the violins, or simply the sense of an accompaniment figure in the lower woodwinds.

As a result it was clear that the musicians had real trust in him, and so they were able to play extremely well. In this, I mean their individual playing, but also the effectiveness of their work together as a group. They knew that he would take account of what they contributed, and they knew they could rely on him. The sense of mutual respect was evident and exceptional. And it enabled the group to give us in the audience an experience of great value.

Now, outside of a performance, an orchestra can have as many disagreements as any group of people — between themselves, and even with the conductor. However, during a performance, the orchestra and the conductor put those disagreements to one side, and they do their best to collaborate in order to create something worthwhile. This performance was a stunning example of what can be achieved.

What we saw that night is that it is possible for people to work together for something better, and we also saw that, when we do that, what we achieve is actually better for everyone.

I think it might be helpful if things were more like that, more often, for all of us.

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