Anyone who read Joshua Kosman's review of this week's San Francisco Symphony concert in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle before going to Davies Symphony Hall last night was probably bracing for a Concert from Hell. Fortunately, those who read the review at the SFGate.com Web site had the advantage of observing that four comments had been submitted, all of which offered rather nicely written challenges to Kosman's description of the concert as "shockingly wan and ramshackle." Now, to be fair to Kosman, the comments seem to be written by attendees of the Friday evening performance, while Kosman covered the first performance, which was a Thursday matinee. In fact one of the comments even suggested that Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension" may have been underrehearsed, which is entirely possible; but the overall tone of the comments was that Kosman was so obsessed with looking for fungus on tree bark that he overlooked the entire forest.
Personally, I side with the comments. I had written my own farewell to the "Annus Horribilis" of 2007 by looking forward to the music I would be hearing in January, particularly the performances of symphonies by Gustav Mahler. At that time I made the following observation about this program's coupling of "L'Ascension" with Mahler's first symphony:
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.
I have no idea whether or not conductor Myung-Whun Chung has any appreciation of Blake's poetry, but that does not particularly signify. This was a program of two worlds in violent opposition, each of which made its case to the listener with radically different forms of rhetoric. Chung assumed the podium with a total command of each of those rhetorical strategies so effective that, had we not had the luxury of an intermission, the juxtaposition of the two performances would have flirted with Multiple Personality Disorder.
Most important is that the phrase "mystical pieties" is a perfect fit for "L'Ascension" with absolutely no derogatory connotation. Each of the four movements of this suite is a meditation on the miracle celebrated by the Feast of the Ascension, and each is framed with a quotation from sacred text. In fact the text for the second movement comes from the Mass of the Ascension, while the remaining quotations are biblical, drawing upon both Testaments. The text for the third movement comes from Psalm 46, while the two outer movements both draw their respective texts from the Gospel According to Saint John, the most mystical of the synoptic gospels. The entire work is about half an hour in duration. The outer movements are very slow, drawing their strength not so much from melodic lines as from the sonorities that unfold through the scoring of those lines. The inner movements are faster but again develop their "logic of progression" more through sonority than through conventions of melody, counterpoint, or harmony. In my "prospective view" of this concert I anticipated that many of the challenges of performance would have to do with sound. I said this in part because, through my own experience with Messiaen, I have not felt that he gave much attention to musical phraseology. Things happen, but it is almost as if they are occurrences that arise from the meditative mind rather than being woven together with the thread of a logical mind. One might say that Messiaen's texts arise more through free association and repetition, rather than from a finely crafted discourse structure. Some would take this as grounds for dismissing Messiaen, but listening to his music can be very rewarding if you can just get your mind on the same channel as his.
Chung's approach to conducting music like this might be regarded as the musical version of stare decisis. Messiaen has pretty much made all the decisions that need to be made. All the performers need do is to "play it as it lays" and let the communion between music and listener work its course. A good metaphor would probably be that Messiaen has put the ship out to sea, and Chung's primary obligation was to keep it on course. He did this with what I felt was a concentrated discipline that was always informed by what he heard and could therefore concentrate on fine-tuning the details unfolding under a steady beat. The Symphony musicians did not appear to have any problems with "buying into" this strategy; and, judging from the audience reaction at the end of the final movement, there seemed to be quite a few people out there in the audience who achieved that communion with the music and sincerely appreciated the experience.
I have one final comment about the overall duration. As Kosman had observed, this is a relatively early work. It was Messiaen's fourth published orchestral work; and, about a year after it was completed, he reworked the whole idea for the composition into a version for solo organ (his primary instrument). What most interests me, however, is the extent to which the orchestral conception seems well suited to half an hour distributed over four movements. I say this as one who sat through the entirety of Saint François d'Assise at the San Francisco Opera several seasons ago and found the whole affair unbearable fatiguing. Since then, however, I have returned to my recording of this opera; and I have discovered that, from a point of scale, each of the eight "Tableaux" holds up perfectly well on its own, particularly in light of this objective of a communion between music and listener. Perhaps a true communion can only run its course beyond the cessation of the music; and "L'Ascension" knew when to stop where Saint François did not.
On the basis of the many sources I have read about Mahler, I doubt that he ever thought very much about such a communion between music and listener. Mahler is more of a dramatic actor who summons the entire force of a symphony orchestra to deliver a monologue. Many would dismiss this as exhibitionism of the worst kind. (Harold Schoenberg liked to call him a "cry baby.") However, as is also the case with Messiaen, anyone willing to buy into his strategy will find some of the finest orchestra writing over that period that links the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. Mahler shared with Messiaen an uncanny sense of sonorities; but, unlike Messiaen, he framed those sonorities in long durations over which an unerring sense of phraseology unfolded. From that point of view, his first symphony provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate the cultivation of both of those senses; and, again, the challenge of the performance is to accept the decisions Mahler has made and let them stand.
In other words the stare decisis strategy is as important to performing Mahler as it is to performing Messiaen, but the realization of that strategy is different. Georg Solti used to say that the most important thing about conducting Das Rheingold was recognizing where the biggest climax was and then making sure that everyone built up to it effectively, rather than jumping the gun or running out of steam before that moment. (Those last colloquialisms are my reading of Solti, not his words!) Mahler's first symphony is not as long as Rheingold, and it breaks down into four movements. However, what made Chung's performance so effective was his sense of where the climax was in each of those movements and how that climatic moment really rises above all the others. This was most evident in how he conducted the first movement, keeping a tight rein on all the energetic passages in order to make sure that "the big one" near the end of the movement was the peak expenditure of that energy. The fourth movement provides an even greater challenge, since it begins full throttle with frantic phrase fragments desperately trying to home in on a theme; but there are also breaks in the Stürmisch bewegt storm clouds. So there is plenty of time allowed in the overall architecture of the movement to let the climax be the climax, and Chung knew exactly how to make the final moments of the entire symphony play out in such a way as to summarize the listening experience of the entire symphony.
Here, again, Chung had no problem realizing his strategy through the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony; and, also again, the audience accepted it all with great enthusiasm. Rather than the Concert from Hell that Kosman tried to make it out to be, this may well be remembered as one of the high points of the current season. It provided a coupling of two composers rarely coupled and, for each composer, honored both the "letter of the text" of the composition and the spirit that motivated the compositional decisions that were made. Chung was, in every sense of the phrase, the "dutiful servant" of the music he was performing; and, by respecting his duties, he also allowed his own expressiveness, as well as that of the musicians he conducted, to shine forth in the best possible light.