Thursday, January 24, 2008
Messiaen, Mahler and Myung-Whun Chung
The San Francisco Symphony unveiled this week's program at a Thursday matinee, and it was a beauty. The first half was dedicated to an early (1933) Messiaen orchestral piece called "L'Ascension" (as in Jesus ascending to Heaven) which was a perfect warmup for the longer second half devoted to Gustav Mahler's First Symphony.
The guest conductor was one of Korea's most treasured citizens, Myung-Whun Chung, who has spent most of the last thirty years conducting in Europe, including a controversial stint at the Bastille Opera in Paris, and it's been 25 years since he's conducted the San Francisco Symphony. The performance today was an almost complete triumph.
I have to confess that I don't get Olivier Messiaen's music. I've heard the "Turangalila Symphony" live twice, and both times it gave me a headache. I only made it halfway through his five-hour "Saint Francoise d'Assisi" opera, and about an hour through a recital of his complete organ works at Grace Cathedral. He was a Catholic mystic who adored birds and their warbling, and since many people whose taste I respect love his music, I figure my lack of enthusiasm is my fault. In any case, "L'Ascension" was Beginner's Messiaen in that it was short, about 30 minutes, and quite beautiful, with a first movement consisting of brass and woodwinds, two lively middle movements for the entire orchestra, and a long final movement for strings.
My only complaint is that Davies Symphony Hall was sounding like a tuberculosis ward this afternoon. Tickets are admittedly expensive but if you're sick, please stay home in bed. And why is it that the coughers always pick the quietest moments in the music to hack away?
Mahler's First Symphony is a deeply eccentric work, if only for the third movement which features a funeral march to the tune of Frere Jacques that keeps being interrupted by what sounds like a klezmer band. Myung-Whun Chung brought out every bit of strangeness in the piece, and made it sound brand new. It was an absolutely extraordinary performance. Also fun was a miscue at the finale of the first movement where the players didn't come in correctly, either because he forgot to give them a signal or some other mixup. Myung-Whun Chung turned to the audience and made a face, we laughed, he talked to the orchestra, and he replayed the final ten seconds so they got it right. It was very cool.