There is no questioning that last night’s semi-staged presentation of Gustav Mahler’s cantata “Das klagende Lied” (the sorrowful song) by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall was a product of good intentions. Indeed, Music Director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) made those intentions clear in an introductory note for the program book, quoted by Jeanette Yu as stating that the “goal with Das klagende Lied is to take listeners though the beautiful intricacies of this work, using video, lighting, and other elements to peel back the layers of music. These elements will serve to illuminate every facet of Mahler’s music, and it is my hope that the audience will walk away having had a deeper, more inspiring experience than they might have had otherwise.”
“Das klagende Lied” may be Mahler’s first extended composition; but it definitely has “beautiful intricacies.” Those who have followed MTT’s journey through the Mahler canon will have no trouble identifying an abundance of seeds that would soon take flower in his early symphonies; but these are delights that an attentive listener will discover quickly enough through the familiarity of multiple performance experiences without “media supplements.” Indeed, because those intricacies are often subtle, too many stimuli from too many different directions may actually distract the listener from making such discoveries.
That was the problem last night. Those good intentions turned out to be the paving stones for a road that leads you-know-where. The blunt truth is that “Das klagende Lied” was the first significant instance of an experience in which Mahler wanted to be in charge of everything; and his success was clearly more than “beginner’s luck.” “Everything” included his decision to write his own libretto. He knew exactly the story he wanted to tell, and he knew exactly how it wanted to be told. Last night’s efforts by Stage Director James Darrah and Video Designer Adam Larsen made it clear that they had no interest in what Mahler wanted to do, if they had bothered to take the trouble to understand it at all. The result was an ongoing play of lights and projections, which rarely, if ever, meshed with the flow of the narrative, and four dancers and two children flitting across a platform behind the orchestra that never seemed to have anything to do with either the words or the music.
That platform also served as the stage for the four vocal soloists, soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Michael König, and baritone Brian Mulligan. While they served a dramatic purpose, the added distance, which required that they sing through the space occupied by the orchestra, tended to jeopardize the quality of their efforts. Furthermore, that dramatic purpose could have been served just had well had they been standing in the more usual places at the edge of the stage in front of the orchestra.
This gets to the issue of what is really going on in this particular Mahler project. Mahler’s libretto involves a gruesome folk tale of fratricide and revenge by the dead. However, this narrative was not conceived to be enacted. Rather, both the vocal soloists and the mixed chorus (the SFS Chorus prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin) share the role of bardic storytellers. Mahler conceived an experience that was less about “playing out” the narrative and more about that magical role conjured up by bardic narrators, a role that is as much about engagement with the audience as it is about telling the story. Thus, the rich abundance of repeated tropes in the Mahler’s score recall the sorts of repetitions that the bards would use to draw listeners into the tale they are relating. As a result, all those media artifacts got in the way of those elements that mattered most in the profundity of Mahler’s work, leading to an experience that was shallower, rather than deeper, than what Mahler had conceived.
That result was, to say the least, disappointing. MTT had already given two highly perceptive accounts of this cantata. On those occasions the intensity of his interpretation was hair-raising; and his punch line made you jump out of your seat. Last night those past experiences felt like long-forgotten memories that had to be desperately clutched to appreciate just how disappointing a shake Mahler was given last night.
Fortunately, the first half of the program offered a more respectful treatment of two other early compositions, both of which served as milestones on the path to Mahler’s first symphony. The better known of these was the early cycle of four songs Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer), the second and fourth of which would be reworked when incorporated into that symphony. These were sung by Cooke; and, while the texts (again written by Mahler) clearly had a male speaker in mind, Cooke knew exactly how to turn those phrases to suit her own delivery. Indeed, if there was a bit too much breast-beating in Mahler’s choices of words, Cooke’s acting skills (realized primarily through body language and facial expression) gave her the power to “make it real” without every succumbing to excess. In other words this rather modest song cycle was everything that the media treatment of Das klagende Lied was not.
The program opened with one of MTT’s early Mahler favorites. “Blumine” had its origins as incidental music for the reading of a dramatic poem enhanced with tableaux vivants. It then found its way into the second movement of the first symphony, from which it was later discarded. The poem for which the music was originally intended was entitled Der Trompeter von Säckingen (the trumpeter of Säckingen); and the outer sections of this ternary form piece feature some ravishing trumpet music, once again given a luscious interpretation by Mark Inouye. The middle section makes rich use of a variety of instrumental resources for contrast, and MTT’s account of the whole was as affectionate as it has consistently been in the past. Thank Heaven for small favors!