Always ready to experience cultural differences while in the Netherlands, I was nevertheless surprised to be invited to an orchestral concert on the afternoon of Christmas Day. A short 25th December concert with no interval is traditional and very popular at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, allowing a brief but inspiring break from Christmas cooking and chit-chat.
I was less surprised to learn that the music would be by Mahler – as it so often seems to be whenever I show up at an orchestral concert. However, the choice of the Fourth Symphony could just about be described as festive, with its (mostly) cheery folksong finale about the saints feasting in heaven. Thanks to the justly celebrated acoustic of this hall, I felt as if I’d been given a fantastic new pair of ears for Christmas, for instance being able to hear every note of the harp part I’d never noticed before in this piece. Conductor Mariss Jansons led a genial, refined performance out of which I’ve particularly remembered the end, so carefully allowing the music to blank itself out; a welcome moment where Mahler suppresses his instinct to answer himself back with a snarky retort.
It was my turn to surprise my hosts by explaining that a concert like this would be a non-starter in the UK because of our total public transport shutdown on Christmas Day, preventing musicians, concert hall staff and audiences (not to mention carers, health workers and other essential but car-less people) from getting about. It was easy to point out the reasons for this – costs, the rights of workers to time off – but it made a British Christmas sound rather impoverished and diminished by comparison. (However, a recent Guardian plea to reverse this situation also received many snarky retorts.) Gelukkig Nieuwjahr!