Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mahler Juvenalia at the SF Symphony

Last weekend at Davies Hall, the SF Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, the SF Symphony Chorus, a quartet of superstar vocalists, a gaggle of dancers, and a few stray children gave a staged presentation of Gustav Mahler's earliest compositions. The reactions to the performance were all over the map (click here for Lisa Hirsch's critical roundup), but I was enchanted by the entire evening. (All photos by Cory Weaver.)

That may have something to do with how I discovered Mahler's music. With the proceeds from my first job at age 13, bagging groceries, I bought a stereo turntable and speakers. This led to becoming the teen mascot for the classical music staff at Discount Records, a proto Tower Records chain with an outlet in the La Cumbre Plaza shopping center in Santa Barbara. I adored the look and feel of boxed classical music sets but usually couldn't afford them. When Leonard Bernstein's big, black, leatherbound collection of close to 20 LPS surveying the Complete Symphonies of Gustav Mahler appeared on the front counter in 1968, I went bonkers with acquisitive ardor. Unfortunately, the price was $100 which might as well have been $1,000 at the time. There was another catch, which was that I didn't have a clue who the hell Gustav Mahler was and what his music even sounded like.

Still, the big black box set beckoned and I watched as it was transferred from the front counter to a back, top shelf, and saw the price descending over the months to $75, then $49, then $33, which was when I made the leap and bought it. Proceeding slowly through the LPs, I wouldn't play the next symphony until assimilating the previous one through repeated listening. The moment it became clear that the music was not going to be a disappointment, and was worth every one of those thirty-three dollars, was on first hearing the third movement of the First Symphony, with Frere Jacques rewritten as a funeral march suddenly being interrupted by a raucous, grotesque gypsy band. It didn't need to be explained that this was wild music, filled with rapturous longing, perfect for a romantic, precocious teenager.

Listening to live Mahler performances over the ensuing decades usually ensures a Proustian madeleine moment involving time transport to an often tortured teenhood. This was very much the case at last Saturday's performance because the program was music Mahler had written as a teenager or thereabouts. It started with an early lyric orchestral movement, Blumine, which was not particularly interesting except for the divinity of the Mark Inouye's trumpet solo. This was followed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (above) exquisitely singing the four Songs of a Wayfarer in that voice which melts me to butter, every time. It was fascinating hearing all the tunes and phrases Mahler recycled into his First Symphony in their original form.

The second half of the program was the staging of the original, three-movement, hour-plus gargantuan cantata for orchestra, soloists and chorus, Das Klagende Lied. The staging was by the usual suspects, director James Darrah, projection designer Adam Larsen, set designer Ellen Lenbergs, lighting designer Pablo Santiago, and costume designer Sarah Schuessler. I heard a few reactions about the staging on the order of "awful, just awful," and reactions to the music that it was derivative, unshapely and a mess.

I thought the understated staging and projections were evocative and beautiful, even though they never quite got around the fact that the piece wasn't meant to be staged. The musical performances by soprano Joelle Harvey (photos 2 and 6), mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (photos 2-4), tenor Michael Konig (photo 7), and baritone Brian Mulligan (photo 6) were sweet, convincing and heroic, considering they were wandering on a ramp trying to project their voices from behind a huge orchestra, which was sounding their usual excellent Mahlerian selves under MTT.

As for Das klagende Lied, I had never even heard of it before these performances, and over the course of a week listening to it via YouTube, fell in love with the nutty, extravagantly ambitious music. The dark German fairy tale story about fratricide over an ice princess is serviceable, and throughout the score you can hear multiple glimpses of Mahler masterpieces to come. I was teleported right back to a cheap 1960s turntable and speakers blasting out lavish Austro-Hungarian-Czech-Jewish orchestral music in a SoCal university beach town.

3 comments: said...

love your description of how you discovered Mahler.. Mine was when my parents bought the Walter Lied von der Erde but never listened to it. I discovered that one first, then it was the Fourth, then it was everything. Especially the Lieder.... Loved Mark Inouye's solo, too..

Stephen Smoliar said...

Mine came around the time I was finishing high school. A distant relative came with two Westminster albums of the fifth and seventh symphonies conducted by Scherchen. He said something like, "I can't stand these. Maybe you'll like them." I was hooked from the opening fanfare of the fifth!

Hattie said...

Mahler takes a lot of patience, I think. I do love the Lieder. I wonder if seeing this performance would change my mind about his other work. He is pretty much wasted on me.
My peak musical experience as an adolescent was when my mother gave me an LP of Eine kleine Nachtmusik with the movements in the wrong order! It was only then, not being musical herself,noted that I was musical and got me violin lessons at the Conservatory, too late for proficiency. I should have taken piano instead.