He could have eased himself into the year, but that’s not Umberto Clerici’s style. Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor wants to hit the ground running with an epic work – Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.7.

Clocking in at over an hour, this turn-of-the-century masterwork comes to the Concert Hall at QPAC on February 23 and 24 in Umberto’s Mahler – The Journey Continues. This concert will be packed with action and continue the QSO’s Mahler odyssey begun by his predecessor, Alondra de la Parra.

He could have chosen something a tad easier for this season-opening gala, the first Maestro concert for 2024, particularly considering that it’s already been a big year for Clerici.

“I made two big debuts this January and February conducting firstly at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily, which is one of the most historic and important theatres in Italy,” he says.

“From there I travelled to Vienna to conduct the Elgar Cello Concerto, which was played by the renowned British cellist Steven Isserlis at the Volksoper Wien. It was a very busy start to the year.”

Clerici has just landed back in Brisbane and says he is ready for the next challenge. As a cellist, he has played Mahler’s Seventh, but never conducted it.

“For the orchestra it is a very challenging piece to play, very demanding technically,” Clerici says. “I played it once about 10 years ago and I remember it was a lot of notes and effort but at the end of the week, despite being tired, I felt very satisfied. Like climbing Mount Everest.

“Conducting it is a workout, both physically and mentally. Preparing is a lengthy process, which is not just about knowing the score but also involves reading Mahler’s notes, biographies and musical analysis. For each movement I build an arc involving tempo speeds, dynamics – softest and loudest peaks, for example – characters of the themes.

“Then I study part by part, instrument by instrument, to understand their interactions, the orchestration, balance, phrasing and directions.”

Clerici says preparation takes about 200 hours. But it is worth it for the musicians and for the audience. What does Symphony No. 7 have to offer concert-goers?

“Emotionally, so many things,” Clerici says. “Excitement, joy and despair, reflection on our human nature, heroism and at the same time fragility.

“Mahler wanted to include the entire world in his music: his interior world but also everything around him. Sounds from nature, cow bells, musical influences from other cultures and influences – like street music, funeral marches, his own Judaism – and instruments which had never been used before in symphonies, like mandolins and guitars.

“Surging from the night music, the finale is a wild and wonderful movement that leads us to the light and the joy of life.”

It fits Clerici’s overall philosophy for 2024 with a repertoire based on Romanticism.

“We will perform for you music by the great German Romantics such as Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann but also Puccini, Berlioz, Sibelius, Dvorak, Smetana and many others,” Clerici says. “The romantic movement can be thought of as a rejection of the precepts of order, harmony, balance and rationality that typified last year’s focus, the classical era.

“In 2024, we will emphasise inspiration, emotions, subjectivity and the primacy of the individual.  We will continue our Mahler and Mozart late-symphonies cycles, starting the Maestro series with Mahler 7.”

Clerici is an exciting conductor to watch, full of passion and energy. It helps that he likes being here.

“I’m loving it,” he says. “We are growing artistically, undertaking more projects and each week I feel the orchestra becomes more deeply involved in the music-making.

“I adore Brisbane but find the regional tours are some of the most special and rewarding concerts we do, as well as giving me a chance to see more of the great state of Queensland. The climate in the winter months doesn’t hurt either.”

It’s a big year for Queensland Symphony Orchestra, so why not start with something big? And it doesn’t get much bigger than Mahler’s Seventh. So, strap yourselves in everybody … it’s going to be quite a ride.

Umberto’s Mahler – The Journey Continues  will be performed at QPAC’s Concert Hall on February 23 at 7.30pm and on February 24 at 1.30pm.


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