Monday, October 05, 2009
Moving On from Mahler
After losing part of my hearing watching the LovEvolution parade on Saturday afternoon, with its floats adorned with banks of porno sized speakers, I risked the safety of my eardrums again at Davies Hall Saturday night. The San Francisco Symphony was finishing up its three-week Mahler festival with a performance of the noisy and long (75 minute) Fifth Symphony. Last week featured a series of bizarre concerts that I didn't attend, which sounded like open rehearsals for conductor Michael Tilson Thomas' "Keeping Score" television show, this time about Gustav Mahler. The opening week of the festival was the Ruckert Lieder with Susan Graham and the First Symphony, and it was thoroughly enjoyable, so hopes for the third week were high. Unfortunately, something was off about the performance and the evening.
Part of the problem was that the first piece on the program was a 13-minute oddity called "Hymnos" by an eccentric Sicilian nobleman named Giacinto Scelsi, and the 1963 piece was so strange and fascinating that whatever followed it was going to sound dull in comparison. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas actually met the composer in the 1960s and told a long, interesting anecdote involving the composer and a paparazzi and a smashed camera and a transcribing acolyte, and the more one heard the more it became apparent that this is the music MTT should be conducting, not all the Brahms and Mahler and so on which he's been playing lately, for which he has only an intermittent affinity.
Most conductors need to stretch just to keep from getting personally stale, but they should also keep in mind what they have specifically to offer the world in terms of gifts. Every conductor has their own strengths, including Maestro Luisotti above from the San Francisco Opera, who was watching the symphony program as an audience member. My advice for MTT is to go with the late 20th and early 21st music at which he is a real, intuitive master. There are plenty of conductors who are great at core 19th century repertory who can't even begin to match him in modern music.
My first job at age 13 in Santa Barbara, California was at a horrible 1960s proto-WalMart called FedMart, and the first earnings went towards purchasing a stereo and mostly classical records from a store whose sweet, eccentric staff adopted me as an acolyte. One day an amazing boxed set arrived at the record store, a plush black leather monstrosity with a simple gold engraving on the outside announcing it was the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It cost $100, which is probably about $1,000 in today's currency, way out of my range even though employed as a bagger at FedMart.
As the months wore on, with me skulking about the stacks of records, reading the back album covers in an attempt to get a cheap music appreciation education, I watched the outrageously priced black set, stationed next to the front cash register, as it didn't sell. The price kept creeping lower, to $75, $66, $49, and finally $33. I bought it without knowing who the hell Gustav Mahler was.
I decided the way to absorb this whatever-it-was-music was to listen to each movement and grok it completely before moving onto the next movement and the next symphony and so on. This worked splendidly until the Fifth Symphony which seemed unassimilable. The piece is almost incoherent, in that it goes goes backwards, from crashing finale in the first movement to utter peace and delayed climaxes in the final movements.
I kept the big, boxed set and moved with it to San Francisco in the mid-1970s where it was thrown out of a window somewhere in the Eureka Valley by a spurned romantic partner, which turned out fine since it was time to move on musically anyway. From the evidence of Saturday's Mahler Fifth Symphony, maybe MTT should be moving on musically too. Parts of the performance were wonderful, but overall it was much too slow and stately and lingering overy every phrase. It's time to go back to the Italian futurists.