Monday, October 03, 2005

La Forza del Gustavo

The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall is turning 25 years old this season and it is looking as silly and clunky now as when it first went up. Damn you, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for such a lousy piece of architecture.

I've heard enough great performances here over the years, however, that I actually have good feelings about the building.

The lobby is open and during the day filled with light, but I've never thought it a particularly good idea to have walls of glass in earthquake country.

The fixturing and much of the design screams Marriott Hotel 1980.

The concert this afternoon was Gustav Mahler's "sprawling" Fifth Symphony, which goes on for about 80 minutes with lots and lots of musicians in the orchestra.

The cheap seats in the hall are in something called the Center Terrace, where you sit behind the orchestra, facing the conductor.

As long as there's not a soloist at the very front of the stage, these can be some of the best seats in the house and they're only $20.

I have a hard time listening to Mahler without feeling like a precocious, angst-ridden adolescent all over again. It's actually dangerous, neurotic music for that age group, but what the hell?

Mahler didn't really become a mass movement composer worldwide until LPs arrived on the scene (LP standing for "long playing," of course). Leonard Bernstein's championship of the composer in the 1960s, along with his epochal recordings of the complete symphonies in 1967, basically thrust Mahler's music into an orchestral limelight which it hasn't left since.

With money from my first job bagging groceries, I bought a stereo and then lusted for months at a local record store over the Bernstein Mahler set, which was probably the plushest boxed set ever produced, all black, with something like 13 LPs inside, priced at $100 which was a small fortune then. Finally, after many months, the set was reduced to $33 and I bought it, to the amazement of the staff, especially since I didn't know who the hell Mahler was or even what his music sounded like.

I decided to learn the music methodically, listening to the first movement of the first symphony a half dozen times before going to the second movement, which didn't need as many repetitions to absorb, and then I hit the third movement which is an insane mixture of Frere Jacques, a funeral march, and klezmermania.
I was thoroughly hooked.

The set got thrown out a San Francisco window a decade later by somebody I didn't want to have sex with anymore, which was just as well.

I find that all music, if you play it too often, needs a rest after a while and that's what I've been doing with Mahler mostly ever since.

However, the chances of hearing this music live, played by an ensemble as good as the San Francisco Symphony, doesn't happen all that often, so the occasion was a treat and the performance was masterful.

Michael Tilson-Thomas' rendition wasn't as schmaltzy as I'm used to, but that was okay since I'm no longer an angst-ridden adolescent. What MTT is great at is rhythm, and this music often seems to be going in three different time signatures at once, which can turn into sonic mush pretty easily but not in his version.

This Sunday afternoon concert was the fifth and last that was going to be used for a recording of the entire Mahler cycle. The audience was as quiet as I've ever heard them until the pianissimo finale of the famous "Adagietto" movement when somebody waited while the last, lone strings died out, and waited some more, while the sound barely quivered in our consciousness, and waited some more until "COUGH/HACK/COUGH!" exploded through the house.

Tilson-Thomas grimaced and then cued the lone horn player who was to start off the final movement without a break, but he came in totally off-pitch. The look on MTT's face at that moment was a priceless "Arrgh!"

In the early evening, I returned to the building for a "La Forza del Destino" rehearsal for the San Francisco Opera.

In the back of Davies Symphony Hall are a number of large rehearsal halls where the opera sets up shop during the season.

I've been cast and then cut from three different parts in the opera already, as a friar, flagellant, and soldier respectively. In one case, this led me to call fellow friar Albert a "motherf---ing, backstabbing Thespian," which he deals with amusingly on his blog here.

However, this evening I was recast as a Religious Pilgrim in KKK drag.

We'll see how long this part lasts before I'm told that the costume department can't find any outfits my size, which is the usual white lie one is told rather than "get out, we want somebody else."

The scene we rehearsed was at an outdoor cafe where the chorus is singing a beautiful plea to God ("Pieta, O Signor") while Pilgrims and Flagellants march around their long, raked table and even walk down the length of it like strippers.

Albert The Thespian is the last Pilgrim to make the crossing and he has a funny description of it on his blog:

I get to be the very last Pilgrim sashaying down the long table (aka: runway) and of course I am loving that. This scene is totally reminding me of when I was a little boy parading down the hallway in our little Queens apartment, pretending to be in the Miss America Pageant.


markleym said...

I've always wondered why I find Mahler so tranfixing. Thanks, Mike, now I know: It's my precocious, angst-ridden adolescent nature. Cue the kettle drums.

Matt said...

Hi Mike,

I really like your website (especially the politics aspect). Though I am not a technical person, I think that having so many big pictures makes getting on to your site a laborious process. I really like the pictures, but it really takes a long time before they can download, thus I have to wait a long time before I can actually read the blog. Maybe you could make the pictures smaller? Thanks, and keep up the great work!

sfmike said...

Dear Matt: Thanks for the kind words, and I'm really sorry about the laborious download. My friend David Barnard has a dial-up connection and not only does it take forever, but all the photos don't even show up.

However, I'm afraid I'm not going to change the formula, because I like the big pictures. They are integral to what I'm trying to do with a new kind of journalism (that's as old as "Life" magazine in some senses).

So please try to use a DSL or broadband connection before you log in here, because waiting for a blog to load IS a pain in the ass. By the way, none of the photos are more than 400 pixels across and are about 35K a piece after I turn them into JPGs. I'd love to actually go BIGGER, but I won't.

cookie jill said...

I LOVED the "cheap seats!"


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