Sunday, September 30, 2007

A New Season for the San Francisco Symphony

Strictly speaking, the Patron's Gala is the first concert of the season for the San Francisco Symphony. However, I prefer to treat the first subscription concert as the beginning of the season, since this is the first occasion that people attend pretty much strictly for the music (rather than the champagne)! Thus, while the Patron's event was launched with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" (a bit of an oxymoron, considering the price of admission), we more ordinary subscribers got our fanfare from Mozart in the triadic opening of his C major K. 338 symphony with its grand orchestration that included trumpets and timpani. This provided an interesting reflection back on the summer (which probably had not been intentional). Recall that this year's Midsummer Mozart Festival scheduled two works that the Symphony had performed in the course of its preceding season (the K. 317 "Coronation" mass and the K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto). In this context it is also nice to recall that the first of the two Midsummer Mozart concerts concluded with that K. 338 symphony, situating the festival, in a peculiar sort of way, "between past and future," as Hannah Arendt might say.

However, while George Cleve had programmed this symphony to conclude a program that was as fascinating as it was extensive, Michael Tilson Thomas programmed it as a "curtain-raiser" for Gustav Mahler's Lied von der Erde. According to Peter Grunberg, who delivered the pre-concert talk, MTT saw this as a "Vertigo-connection," with the tormented Scottie as Mahler, whose soul is eased when Midge plays some Mozart for him, which happens to be (what else?) the second movement of K. 338. That makes for a great story, but I prefer to think in terms of Mahler's reputation as a conductor. In this case the story has to deal with friends persuading Brahms to join them in their box when Mahler was conducting Don Giovanni. Brahms agreed to come only if they would let him doze on the "fainting couch;" but, as the story goes, as soon as Mahler conducted the opening notes of the opera's overture, Brahms was up from the couch and riveted to the rest of the performance! K. 338 is much earlier than Don Giovanni, and I am not sure how (if at all) Mahler approached the non-operatic Mozart. Nevertheless, it throws an interesting light on the coupling of Mozart and Mahler and reminds us that sometimes biography tells better stories than fiction!

When I wrote about the Midsummer Mozart performance of K. 338, I observed that, with its orchestral resources, it was the grandest sound of the evening. Needless to say, the resources required for the Mahler dwarfed those of the Mozart; and, in spite of the trumpets and timpani, there was a shimmering transparency to Cleve's performance that was absent in Davies Symphony Hall. However, it is unclear that such a sound could have been heard in any but the few front rows of Davies; so what we had was a performance both appropriate to the space and preparatory for all the stops that would then be pulled out after the intermission.

I am never sure whether or not I approve of prefatory remarks that prepare one for disappointment, but in this case it was probably just as well that MTT took the time to tell us that Thomas Hampson, the baritone soloists for Das Lied von der Erde, was dealing with an incipient cold. Personally, I sometimes worry that Hampson is given to over-acting, even in a concert setting; so it may have been just as well that he had to deliver a more subdued performance, even if that performance lapsed into a head tone or two. He certainly paced himself well through the final "Abschied" movement, which takes about as much time as all of the five movements that precede it. For that matter MTT's sense of the architecture of that movement played out in such a way that one just lost track of how much time was elapsing. The ear followed from episode to episode without worrying that any of them were lingering on excessively.

The tenor solo was sung by Stuart Skelton, who approached his performance with a bit more dramatization. However, since he had to deal with two songs that depict drunkenness, one really would not really want the dramatic element to be short-changed. Besides, he also brought just the right physical presence to "Von der Jugend," which he sang between the two "drunk songs" and is one of those Chinese poems that simply focuses on capturing a single pristine moment.

Das Lied von der Erde is another one of those works that can never be captured effectively by current recording techniques. Too much is happening in the orchestra, and almost all of it serves the relationship with the voices and what they are singing. The orchestration is both rich, in the abundance of different sound qualities that are invoked, and spare in giving each of those sound qualities its proper measure and no more. The chinoiserie is kept discreetly minimal, with only a few nods to pentatonic melody lines. However, the sound of the mandolin in the final bars of "Der Abschied" evoked the color of its Chinese cousin without those few pitches having to refer to any particularly "Chinese" melody.

From a personal point of view, this performance also looked back to an earlier time, since Das Lied von der Erde was one of the first performances by MTT and the San Francisco Symphony that I heard when I moved from Singapore (with its own coincidentally Chinese connotations) to the Bay Area. I have begun to make a habit of hearing MTT's "second time around" performances, which he has now done for several (if not most) of the symphonies. I like him because he never repeats himself. There are always new ways to hear Mahler, and he always manages to find them. Sooner or later, I suspect I shall discover the same in the ways in which he conducts Mozart!

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