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Inside the Music

When Mahler is Watching: A Conversation with Erich Rieppel

“It is also as if everyone in the world, the hundreds of recordings out there, the Minnesota Orchestra, Mahler himself, is staring down, listening to and watching you.”

Minnesota native Erich Rieppel recalls the joy and intense pressure of one of his first experiences as principal timpani of the Minnesota Orchestra: performing and recording Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

How did the November 2018 Mahler Seventh Symphony performances and recording sessions fit into the timeline of your new role as principal timpanist of the Minnesota Orchestra?

I was in my last year of a fellowship position at the New World Symphony in Florida when I played my two-week trial with the Minnesota Orchestra. Meaning: if I didn’t get this job after this trial or some other job that year (there are generally fewer than five major timpani positions available per year.) I would be unemployed. Minutes after the last performance of the trial, Osmo Vänskä called me to say, “Good news, we would like to work with you.” These words were surreal. It was the culmination of much toil and I was overwhelmed with emotion. The immediate, next part of the conversation with him was about how I should start as soon as possible, including performing and recording Mahler’s Seventh Symphony starting in nine days. Of course, it was quite an honor, but incredibly daunting at the time. I could not fathom performing this monster of a musical creation with the mighty Minnesota Orchestra, and to prepare it in a week as my first gig on the job. As I went back to my residence in Florida, I prepared like a madman, trying to enjoy the accomplishment but also knowing that the next three weeks would require incredible focus towards this magnificent musical work.

What was that experience like emotionally and mentally?

There’s a great dichotomy on this subject for me. In one way: it is your job, and you’ve been studying very hard and putting it into practice for so long, always striving to play at the highest caliber you can imagine under any sort of duress. In other words, just another day of work. But in another way: it is also as if everyone in the world, the hundreds of recordings out there, the Minnesota Orchestra, Mahler himself, is staring down, listening to and watching you. So there’s some slight comfort and great distress. But I would say that the passion and confidence that one has developed before this situation should be leaned on; not the fear of judgement. I, of course, had nervousness but couldn’t allow that to get in the way and had developed tactics to combat that. Performing this particular piece with my hometown, world-class orchestra provided an extra layer of responsibility and motivation.

What are the particular challenges for the timpani in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony?

All of Mahler’s symphonies are virtuosic musically, technically and emotionally—for all instruments. However, the Seventh is notorious and stands out for timpanists. The beginning of the Finale is a popular excerpt for auditions. Many student percussionists know it from studying it in school. But those few bars are barely the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps the most obvious challenges are technical. It is unusual for the timpani to be so involved throughout the whole symphony, even for Mahler. There are many pitches to change throughout even a few bars, which have to be executed precisely by using your feet to move the pedals to the correct spot. Mahler indicates many mallet specifications in addition to all of the other very specific details in the part and orchestral score.

But perhaps the most challenging items are musical. Knowing the precise sound and knowing your role for every single note are crucial in a Mahler symphony. That means for any given note written, you know what instruments you are playing with, what their dynamic is compared to yours, the register you and those other instruments are in, what part of the form you are in, etc. Most of the time you are not leading or the most important voice by a long shot, but in other instances, you absolutely must drive the whole orchestra. These are a few details one should know to bring justice to this music and there are simply so many details Mahler wrote for the performer to consider in this symphony.

Were you able to attend some of the playback sessions during the recording process? What was your initial reaction to that experience?

Yes. To listen back to the recordings as you are playing them is a mind game. For any given musical moment, you’re thinking of how you remember it, how it came out through the mics, how you feel after listening, then thinking of how much to adjust, etc. It can make one a bit manic in that you are at odds with many factors. Who do I play for? The microphones, audio director, my colleagues, the conductor, and least of all but most carefully-measured, my own artistic integrity? It was tough and required great compromise at times. But ultimately it was one of the most artistically rewarding experiences in my life.

What excites you as you looking ahead to upcoming performances and recording sessions of Mahler’s Symphonies No. 3, 9 and 8?

Mahler 3 and 8 are monumental, but 9 is a very special work. I look forward to recording all of them.

What else should we know about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony?

Those who know this piece recognize its complex but vivid aural representation of reality and fantasy. I think it has the whole world of human emotions if one listens with an open mind. For those who don’t know the piece, there’s much history to consider, but I’ll also say that it doesn’t require knowledge of that to be profound. The work has funeral music, military tunes, folk songs and otherworldly tones throughout, and sometimes blends these idioms. It is truly a unique work and one of the highest musical honors to record it.