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Mahler Meets The Man With A Mission

George Mathew (© Chris Lee)

On Monday, January 12, a special benefit concert called “Mahler For The Children of AIDS” will be performed at Carnegie Hall. The work will be a single symphony, Mahler’s Symphony Number 3 in d minor with participants of some of the world’s major soloists. Susanne Mentzer is the Mezzo-Soprano, Glenn Dicterow, from the New York Philharmonic is Concertmaster. The orchestra is made up of players from the major orchestras of New York, Minnesota, Buffalo, Miami, Hamburg, Philadelphia and two dozen other orchestras from around the world.

Add to this the Emerson String Quartet, the Women of the Dessoff Symphonic Choir, Cathedral Christers, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and others.

The conductor and organizer is George Mathew, a most unlikely leader for such a group. Here he speaks to ConcertoNet’s New York correspondent, Harry Rolnick.


George Mathew is in a hurry when we meet in the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall. Supposedly we’re looking for a place to eat, but so much has to be done such a little time to do it. We walk towards 57th Street, because he wants to check whether the poster for his concert in the right place. On the way, though, he has time to glance at my own Korean pirate score of Mahler’s Third Symphony, and his eyes go up in amazement.

“Yes”, he says, “this is astonishing. This isn’t the usual published score. It’s the original one which Mahler wrote before he changed it. Marvelous!”

As we cross over Columbus Circle, he grills me on my favorite recording of the work, and I mention an obscure performance by Dmitri Mitropoulos.

“Oh, yes, very exciting. Mmm, I don’t know how authentic it is, but really good.”

We finally reach Carnegie Hall, and he is satisfied. “Fine,” he says, “right by the entrance. Now let’s get something to eat. Oh, wait…..the phone.”

He speaks for a few minutes, smiles, then laughs. “Do you know how that was?” The bassoonist of the New Jersey Symphony. He’s coming over to play as well. Wonderful.”

Really? I ask him about problems. After all, these are all frustrated soloists. Won’t you have difficulties with them?

The Maestro stops in mid-street as we go into Europa Restaurant. “Oh, no, no, no,” with just a tinge of the Singapore-Tamil accent with which he grew up. “Every musician, every artist is part of the world community. When they know that they’re going to be part of this project, I can’t really stop them from coming.”

George Mathew’s “project” is the third of three benefits over the past five years. In 2006, he organized and conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a massive orchestra for the benefit of those who suffered the disastrous earthquake of Kashmir. Last January, he conducted the Verdi Requiem, this for the victims in Darfur, Sudan. This year, Mr. Mathew will conduct players from two dozen different orchestras for the children of AIDS victims.

In a way, George Mathew joins the coterie of artists, like Quincy Jones, Bono and Bob Geldof, is taking musicians he knows and performing for charity. But for him, every single piece of music has a special meaning of its own.

“Why the Beethoven Ninth?” he asks. I mumble something about peace and all mankind, but he interrupts me. “Yes, that’s fine. But listen to that last movement. Not Schiller’s words, but the Turkish music. The singers and chorus are trying so hard to make sense of their music in the first part of the movement, but nothing really coalesces. Then what do we have? Turkish music!! Cymbals, bells, exotic instruments in a rhythm which you would never have in European music.” Mr. Mathew continues rapidly, implying that when Beethoven meant “brothers”, he was not referring to simply people of his own culture. He was referring to all.

“In fact,” says Mr. Mathew with an impish grin, “I think we could solve America’s immigration problem if we only took this music seriously.”

For Verdi’s Requiem, the performance had a special feeling because of two different groups. The First Chair players were among the best in the world, but several music schools sent over students to sit in on the performance. “And then,” says the Maestro, I noticed something that these professional players were allowing those students to take many of the solo parts. The inspiration was traveling throughout the whole ensemble.”

The choice of Mahler’s Third Symphony was most unlikely. Mr. Mathew’s brother is a pediatrician, who specializes in helping the children of AIDS victims, and he was describing the problem inherent in the crisis.

“The problem of course is partly medical,” said the Maestro. “But it is equally social. These parents, many of whom are poor and uneducated, are afraid to reveal that they have AIDS. And yet if we knew sooner, it would be possible to save those children. Somehow, we must give that information.” And somehow, Gustav Mahler……

“Well, let us go onto that beautiful beautiful mezzo solo in the fourth movement. How does she begin? She sings out, ‘O Mensch!’ Oh, all of mankind. ‘Gib Acht!’ Give attention. Give heed. She is saying that we must pay attention, that we must call discover what is to be discovered together. The voice of an older woman rising out of the twilight texture of the fourth movement, exhorting all of us - but especially 'Men' - to pay attention.”

“And what do we have in the fifth movement? Children and beggars. The children singing with women. Not even words. They sing ‘Ding Dong’ Bells Sounding through heaven. And then they sing—yes in a Medieval setting but still applicable today—about guilt and shame which is powerful than we can describe, because guilt and shame are at the root of the stigma that allows Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV to even exist at a time when we have the ability to prevent it...and prevent it totally.”

Mr. Mathew speaks of more miracles later, but what was astonishing to me was his own reputation, which, outside of these concerts, is rather vague. Here he is with the best musicians in the world, with some of the world’s most difficult music. Isn’t there a sort of audacity in what he is doing? Like the businessman who learned one Mahler symphony and conducts it around the world, knowing nothing else?

Granted, he obviously know his music, he has studied conducting and piano with Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, and other conductors ever since moving to America. His room in Harlem is packed with books and musical scores of all sorts. He has the bearing of a conductor, and obviously the enthusiasm. But nobody should question his technique.

“I do know how to drive the car”, he says firmly.

He also has the knack or genius of bringing together musicians for his projects. Glenn Dicterow, the NY Philharmonic’s First Chair violin, says with astonishment, that “George cold-calls noted musicians. I was surprised by the call, but George is extremely compelling.”

The Maestro hardly backs off two items I press him on. One is his mystic attitude. The other, as he speaks about music, is something almost verging on quantum particles, the other-dimensional results which are neither time nor space but another dimension.

“Is there a difference?” he asks. “Maybe it is too obvious that I am a Keralan (South Indian, though born in Singapore). But yes, I know, I hear from every musician, every artist that in each and every note there is massive, almost infinitesimal information. The slightest dipping of Glenn Dicterow’s bow opens a whole world, a universe. With great music, nothing is incidental. There is no such thing as a passing note or a harmony which doesn’t have the most universal meaning.”

His ideas are reflected by an adviser to the project, Bishop Desmond Tutu, himself a student of music. “You look at Mahler’s own words scribbled into the manuscript of the Third Symphony: ‘Father, let no creature be lost!’ Mr. Mathews, your community of artists and humanitarians alike makes that call resound across the continents.”

During our lunch—Mr. Mathews had a piece of chocolate cake and coffee—the phone kept ringing, and his replies were usually laughter and thanks, as somebody else begged to come in. It was time to go, with just a few words about his family. And then he became the would-be doting father.

“When I have my first child, I will start him with the Suzuki method at the age of three to learn the violin. Sir Colin Davis told me that his whole attitude toward music changed when he heard his child play the instrument.

“And what,” I ask audaciously, “if he or she prefers the bagpipes or accordion?”

“Well,” laughs the Maestro, “that choice won’t happen until he is seven or eight. And then I will simply have a violin-playing accordionist or bagpiper.”

He laughs. And turns up the street, walking quickly, Thinking about those eternal notes he will create in Carnegie Hall.


Tickets for “Mahler For The Children of AIDS” are $35 to $125 and are available by calling the Carnegie Hall Box Office at 212-247-7800; in person at 881 Seventh Avenue, NYC; or by visiting www.CarnegieHall.org.

Harry Rolnick



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