Thursday, April 14, 2016
Posthumous Symphonies and The Divine Sasha
Last week Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a pair of famous symphonies that were premiered after the deaths of their respective composers. The first half was devoted to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony which the composer wrote in 1822, shelved after two movements, and premiered in 1865 decades after his early death. The melodies are so catchy that it's easy to hear why the piece is so popular but MTT's interpretation last Saturday evening was grave and serious, finally settling into the lugubrious.
Things picked up immensely after intermission with Mahler's mammoth 1909 symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde or The Song of the Earth. It was a 2007 performance with MTT leading the SF Symphony with tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Thomas Hampson that finally converted me to the strange piece, an hour-long setting of six Chinese poems translated into German that glides seamlessly between utter delicacy and total cacophony.
As great as that 2007 performance was, this version was better because the two soloists were extraordinary. Simon O'Neill, who memorably performed as Chairman Mao in SF Opera's Nixon in China a few years ago, managed to sing over the huge orchestra with beauty and humor, especially in his near-impossibly difficult opening Drinking Song of Earthly Woe, which ends with "Leert eure gold’nen Becher zu Grund!/Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!" or "Drain your golden goblets to the last/Dark is life, dark is death!" His counterpart was alto Sasha Cooke whose voice was so meltingly beautiful I alternated between wanting to cry and to laugh because Mike Myers as Linda Richman kept coming to mind with her catchphrase, "Her voice, it's like buttah!"
The 30-minute final song, Der Abschied, with Mahler saying goodbye to the world (he died six months before the first performance) was exquisite, and if you don't know the music, you should (click here for Christa Ludwig singing with Otto Klemperer conducting on YouTube).
The orchestral playing all evening was fabulous and the orchestra will probably sound even better tonight in Carnegie Hall where the orchestra is repeating this program on tour.