When Queen Elizabeth invoked the phrase "Annus Horribilis" to describe the year 1992 in her speech at Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of her Accession, she was speaking from an intensely personal point of view. However, there are so many ways in which the phrase may be applied to 2007 from a global point of view that the last thing I want out of end-of-year journalism is that inevitable flood of retrospective impressions. For this reason the only page I felt was worth reading in the "Datebook" section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle was the weekly full-page advertisement placed by the San Francisco Symphony to announce the coming events at Davies Symphony Hall. Looking forward to something is the only way to drive off the mean reds that are an inevitable part of this year's retrospection.
January promises to be a truly fascinating month at Davies. Much of the reputation of Michael Tilson Thomas here has been made by his performances of the Mahler canon, so it might almost be an act of chutzpah for any other conductor to bring Mahler into "Michael's house" (as they would say, or used to say, in the National Basketball Association). Nevertheless, this will happen twice during the month of January; and I suspect that I am far from the only "good listener" (as Stravinsky had put it) anxiously anticipating both events. The more ambitious is the second one: Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the fifth symphony.
Ironically, the last time I heard the Concertgebouw was also for Mahler. It was about 25 years ago, back when Bernard Haitink was "running the shop." My own story actually began on a business trip to Den Hague, at which my host expressed surprise that I would travel all the way to Holland and not try to visit the Concertgebouw. We consulted the newspaper and saw that Haitink was conducting the Mahler seventh symphony. He then had his assistant arrange a ticket for me with absolutely no success: the demand for Haitink's Mahler performances was far too high. The following season, however, the Concertgebouw Orchestra visited Carnegie Hall to give that same concert, thus fulfilling Edward Albee's proposition that "the American Dream" is all about getting a second chance. This time I ordered a ticket as soon as I could and was awe-struck for the entirety of this work that is notoriously unwieldy in just about every imaginable way. In comparison the fifth symphony is a far more orderly composition, but it deploys its orchestral resources in such abundance that it is another one of those works that will never submit to the limitations of recording technology. Thomas recently demonstrated this with the San Francisco Symphony, and now Jansons is bringing the Concertgebouw Orchestra here is establish another point of view of that same mass of orchestral complexity. My only frustration is that the performance will not take place until January 28!
There is another irony in the concert that Jansons has prepared for the preceding night. He will be conducting Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique a little more than a month after the San Francisco Symphony performance under Thomas. Once again, as I have written, this is a work for which there is no substitute for a live performance. It also demands a radically different approach than any composition by Mahler does, so San Francisco will be getting an excellent opportunity to survey a broad scope of Jansons' capabilities.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to come into Michael's house with your own orchestra and another to conduct his orchestra. This is what Myung-Whun Chung will be doing during the days immediately preceding the Concertgebouw visit. He will be conducting the San Francisco Symphony in his interpretation of the Mahler first; and, just to make the entire program a bit more interesting, he will precede the symphony by Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension." For sound alone this should be raising all sorts of challenges for the Symphony, and it will certainly be interesting to hear how Chung leads them through all of those challenges. As a reader of William Blake, I have to wonder whether or not this evening will turn into a marriage of the heaven of Messiaen's mystical pieties and the hell of Mahler's stark worldly realities.
Fortunately, I do not think we need fear that Thomas will be upstaged this coming month. The week before Chung brings out the Messiaen, Thomas will be conducting Iannis Xenakis' "À l'ile de Gorée;" and the preceding week I shall finally get my opportunity to hear Deborah Voigt perform with the Symphony doing the "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss. If we add to all these other events the visit that Robert Mann will be paying to the San Francisco Conservatory at the end of January, then this may be an opportunity to enjoy an extensive music education all crammed into the temporal interval of 31 days!