The San Francisco Symphony's MahlerMania continued earlier this month with a quartet of performances of the monumental Second Symphony, nicknamed the "Resurrection." I grew up listening to the Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording as a teenager, usually with the stereo going full blast while smoking marijuana with neighborhood friends, but had somehow managed to make it through this lifetime without hearing a live performance.
It's a great piece of music for precocious, overemotional young people, with its wild mood swings, its trip into the dark, violent abyss near the end, followed by the huge chorus and two soprano soloists slowly making their way up to some kind of operatic, heavenly finale. The only music that's comparable is the huge choral setpiece in heaven at the opening of Boito's "Mefistofole" opera.
I was looking forward to the concert immensely, but the conducting by Michael Tilson Thomas sounded strangely inert to me. The orchestra, in all its many moments and sections, was superb, but as an organic whole the performance never really "lifted off the ground," as an audience member sitting behind us put it. Instead, it was rather as if a beautiful old watch had been taken apart, with every part shined and refurbished, but somehow never put back together again. The symphony was a string of parts, and the essential dramatic core, with all its overindulgent emotionalism, never really came through.
The Symphony has taken this performance on tour over the last two weeks, alternating with the Kissine premiere, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concertto with Tetzlaff, along with Ravel's "Valses..." and Lizst's "Tasso." The tour started in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the University Choir sang the finale in the Mahler, moved on to Philadelphia where the critic for the Philadelphia Enquirer loved the performance, though interestingly enough his description doesn't contradict mine.
"Every micro-phase in this massive, 90-minute work for large orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists was crystallized in sound, manner, and gesture. Every moment was, for lack of a better word, itself - a clear outgrowth of what came before, but unlike anything already heard or yet to come."
The two soloists, Katarina Karneus and Laura Claycomb, were wonderful though Claycomb's pefectly beautiful voice isn't what's really required for the over-the-top finale. You want a big, porno instrument that can sail over anything and everything. I wonder how the ensemble sounded in Carnegie Hall, the final stop on the tour. (Update: the New York Times critic, Anthony "Strapping" Tommasini, loved the concerts. I guess we're just snottier in San Francisco.)