By Michael Roddy
COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Before he went out to lead the orchestra, choirs and soloists for Mahler's gargantuan Symphony No. 8, "The Symphony of a Thousand," conductor Markus Stenz said his young son gave him a word of advice: "Don't mess it up, Dad."
In the event, Stenz, a solidly built 46-year-old who sometimes pointed with his head, almost like a soccer player -- so the children's choirs in boxes above the stage got their cues, he said -- made Mahler's most challenging symphony a spiritual and musical high point for anyone who heard it.
For two performances, on September 24 and 25, Stenz's Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne, with nine soloists including Irish soprano Orla Boylan and German mezzo Petra Lang, shook the rafters of the sold-out Cologne Philharmonie concert hall.
The gala concert opened the orchestra's season and celebrated the 25th anniversary of the still modern-looking hall that has helped turn the center of Cologne, dominated by its famous cathedral, into an artistic wonderland. It also was a nod to Mahler having conducted the Gurzenich, which traces its roots to the 15th century, for the 1904 premiere of his Fifth Symphony, with its famously moving and cinematic adagio.
It is a heritage that Stenz, the orchestra's chief conductor since 2003 and also the city's general music director, is doing his best to make better known to people outside of Germany, many of whom have heard of the Berlin Philharmonic but may have trouble pronouncing "Gurzenich."
"This is absolutely a musical hub...One tends to think in the south of Munich, the north Hamburg and Berlin in the east but clearly the western hub of music is Cologne," Stenz told Reuters in an interview after an intense morning re-recording bits of Mahler with, once again, those massive forces, to polish it for a cycle being released on the OehmsClassics label.
And why another Mahler cycle when there already are more available than any sober collector could need, including historic recordings in decent CD transfers at dirt-cheap prices from German mail-order houses?
Stenz, who was born in a town south of Cologne, isn't out to put his personal stamp on Mahler, but sees his music as an artistic challenge that any self-respecting conductor -- especially a German one steeped in the traditions of Mahler's late romantic style -- must meet head on.
"There is always a spirit beyond the notes in any Mahler symphony and that is a huge attraction for an artist. And the other fact is Mahler's music for me has the perfect balance of complexity and emotional content, and that's something that is close to us in our time, isn't it? Complexity and emotion -- that's the reason why we can live with Mahler's music."
Not surprisingly, he thinks his orchestra, which also plays more than 150 performances a year at the nearby opera house, is well equipped to deal with music which, given Mahler's operatic roots, seeks to establish a direct, immediate rapport with the listeners -- something like an opera without the scenery.
"APPRECIATES THE LIVE PERFORMANCE"
"We're an orchestra that appreciates the moment of the live performance," he said, by way of explaining why the orchestra agreed to one of his innovations -- selling quick-pressed CDs of the night's performance just minutes after the applause has ended, unedited, warts and all.
Some 20,000 have been sold, he said, which amounts to about seven percent of the audience dishing out for what Stenz described as a "picture postcard" of what they just heard.
Stenz, who also has had stints conducting the new-music specialist London Sinfonietta, and the Melbourne Symphony, has come up with other ways to liven up the concert hall and imbue it with a real sense of occasion.
As he did in Melbourne, he takes listeners somewhere they've never been -- and aren't expecting to go -- by throwing in an unannounced "Act 3" piece that is not on the printed program.
"Everybody's equal then, nobody can read the program notes in advance, it's only revealed on the day," he said.
He also champions new music, including the operas of compatriots Hans Werner Henze and Detlev Glanert. When he recreated the historic concert Mahler conducted in 1904 for the 2008 BBC Proms in London, Stenz added the rarely heard 1950s piece "Punkte" by new music avatar Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was to have attended but died a few weeks earlier.
He's proud of the fact that Stockhausen and Stravinsky as well as Mahler all conducted the Gurzenich in a city with almost an embarrassment of musical riches, including the symphony orchestra of broadcaster WDR, the opera company and numerous smaller ensembles.
"Somehow the citizens of Cologne, they have this appreciation of music," Stenz said.
(The Gurzenich Orchestra performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 is broadcast on WDR on Nov 28 at 2315 CET)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)