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Alpha and Omega

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/22/2001 -  
Gustav Mahler: Adagio from Symphony # 10; Das Klagende Lied
Christine Goerke (soprano)
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo)
Jon Villars (tenor)
Clayton Brainerd (bass)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

Fritz Mahler was a cousin of the famous composer and a composition student of Alban Berg. After drifting through several European capitals, he settled in Hartford where for many years he directed the symphony and led them to at least the edge of respectability. I never realized how good he was until he left in the mid-1960’s and the orchestra slid into the abyss of meretricious decrepitude. Mahler’s crowning achievement was the first recording of Das Klagende Lied, a badly expurgated but not too poorly played piece of vinyl which now enjoys the status of a collector’s item. It occurs to me that Michael Tilson Thomas had a similar upbringing to Maestro Fritz, that is, he grew up under the shadow of a relative of genius (in his case, the great Yiddish actor Boris Thomashevsky) and felt that he had to forge a career for himself of equal magnitude. After a stormy personal and professional early life, T-T landed on both feet in the fog of San Francisco where, as an outspoken gay man, he has found a sympathetic community which has placed him on an exalted pedestal. It is no exaggeration to state that he is treated almost as a demigod in the Bay Area and his highly developed communication skills have won many converts to the cause of classical music. Under his tutelage, the San Francisco Symphony has arrived as a popular performing ensemble and Tilson Thomas has become a celebrity of sorts, even starring in his own American Express commercial. My experience of this orchestra in years past has been that, given the atrocious acoustics of Davies Hall (now ameliorated somewhat), they played passably well under former music director Herbert Blomstedt, but could not produce at all for any of the parade of guest conductors who kept the podium warm prior to Michael’s arrival. Last evening at Carnegie Hall, they presented an interesting juxtaposition of the first and the last major works for orchestra of Gustav Mahler.

Fortunately, the familiar Adagio was programmed first, so I was able to evaluate this orchestra immediately. This was perhaps not so fortuitous for the ensemble, however, as it took only the first few measures for the viola section to indicate the shallowness of tone that plagues the group. Overall, their sound is embarrassingly pedestrian and nowhere in this opus ultima of Mahler did any flashes of brilliance ignite. It is perhaps strange to open an evening at symphony with an adagio, but it was apparently Mahler’s plan to begin his five part Tenth Symphony with just such a movement (Deryck Cooke notwithstanding, there is no way of knowing if, had the composer lived, he would have kept his initial architectural conception). In the midst of this mysteriously amateurish sound, the musicians appeared to be executing at a high level of professionalism and the conductor’s interpretation seemed actually quite satisfactory, however, the finished product was reminiscent of that of a student orchestra, and not one from a very good conservatory at that. The middle of the three disturbingly dissonant chords which slash this piece to its very core towards the end of its performance sounded exactly as if it were being played by a large ensemble of harmonicas. For an organization purporting to be a major symphony orchestra, this poor showing was simply unacceptable.

The rare work of Mahlerian juvenilia (he was 17 when he wrote this cantata) was much more interesting. Part Wagner (the main theme of the first section is a snappy march version of the “golden apples” leitmotif from Das Rheingold), part Bruckner (especially the Symphony # 4) and perhaps most reminiscent of the much more accomplished work of the young Schoenberg (the Gurrelieder could possibly have been influenced by this piece, but Mahler’s star pupil would have had to have been familiar with the Klagende Lied only from the autograph score, since it was not performed until twenty years after its composition), the bulky fairy tale in song stumbles through the orchestral forest developing Mahler’s signature touches en route. One of these devices, the use of offstage horns and drums, was mishandled badly this night. The drum in the balcony, diligently following the beat of Tilson Thomas, truly marched differently from the double basses on stage, the net effect for those of us in the audience caught in the middle one akin to sitting between two high decibel sets of headphones on the subway.

The choral voice was the orchestra’s in human form, accurate enough but not at all polished or interesting. The vocal soloists ran the gamut from the strong bass of Clayton Brainerd, through the warmly expressive tones of mezzo Michelle DeYoung, to a less happy place inhabited by Christine Goerke and Jon Villars. Once again the orchestral playing was colorless even though the conductor shaped the work nicely. The winds were especially shrill throughout, the flutes and piccolo portraying the singing bone (don’t ask) particularly grating. This evening was a major disappointment for me. I really wanted to enjoy a group which I know is making a difference in their community, but that was just not in the cards. Upon reflection, maybe that old Hartford Symphony wasn’t so bad after all.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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