The first series of subscription concerts in 2017 by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), will offer a program consisting entirely of the music of Gustav Mahler. The major work to be performed will be Mahler’s earliest large-scale composition, the cantata in three episodes “Das klagende Lied” (song of lamentation). Mahler first composed this work, which usually lasts over an hour, between 1878 and 1880 but subjected it to major revisions over the next two decades. Mahler wrote his own libretto, and there is some question over the sources for his narrative. His title is the same as that of a fairy tale by Ludwig Bechstein; but he may also have drawn upon “The Singing Bone” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The narrative is replete with all the elements of Gothic fiction: love, jealousy, murder, and supernatural elements.
This will be the third time that MTT has conducted SFS and the SFS Chorus in a performance of this piece. The concerts given in 1996 were recorded and were included in The Mahler Project, the seventeen-CD box set produced by SFS Media. The second set of performances took place in 2001. This time, however, the presentation will be more adventurous, since James Darrah will be returning to Davies Symphony Hall to provide a semi-staged interpretation of Mahler’s narrative, working, once again, with video designer Adam Larsen. The resulting production will require more than 225 performers with dancers and actors joining the full orchestra, chorus, offstage bands, and four soloists (soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Michael König, and baritone Brian Mulligan), as well as solos for boy soprano and boy alto.
The first half of the program will be devoted to two of the early works that provided the path, so to speak, to Mahler first symphony. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) is an early song cycle, also using Mahler’s own texts. The thematic materials from the second and last (fourth) of these songs found their way into the first and third movements of the first symphony. Mahler composed the vocal line for the middle register, and at next month’s concerts the vocalist will be Cooke. The connection of the opening selection, “Blumine” (floral), is that Mahler originally intended it to be the second movement of his first symphony. It was based on incidental music that Mahler wrote for a reading of Der Trompeter von Säckingen (the trumpeter of Säckingen), a dramatic poem by Joseph Victor von Scheffel. The manuscript was only discovered in 1966; and, unless I am mistaken, the first conductor to record the first symphony with the “Blumine” movement included was Frank Brieff, leading the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (part of my now-dispersed vinyl collection).
This concert will be given only three performances, at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 13, and Saturday, January 14, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 15. Laura Stansfield Prichard will give the Inside Music talk, which will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors open for these talks fifteen minutes before they begin. Ticket prices range from $35 to $162. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Finally, the event page also includes three embedded audio players. Two of these are podcasts about both “Das klagende Lied” and “Blumine,” hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The remaining link is for sound clips from “Das klagende Lied.”