Tag Archives: Gustav Mahler

Mahler’s 9th Meets MTT: Not a Farewell

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911)

Gustav Mahler composed nine symphonies and began his tenth. His Symphony No. 9 was completed in April, 1910, one year before his death, and premiered June, 1912, one year after. With ahistorical hindsight, many have regarded the 9th as a summation of the composer’s life and a farewell to life and music. This is faulty history and a bad way to hear the complex, astonishing music. In the course of this ninety minute symphony, one may hear myriad forces of nature, human experience, and the poignant, irregular pulse in the music. There are pauses; floods of sweeping phrases; galumphing, country dances; a final, transcendent adagio. The movements end as though falling apart, with a harsh punch, or evaporate into another form of being. This writer has heard it said the Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is not the most sought after for performance. It happens in multiple dimensions at once. It cannot be summed up — it is not “the one with a thousand voices”–it is music made of Mahler’s measureless understanding of music. In the few years preceding his death, Mahler’s life was full of events. He resigned from a ten year tenure as the Artistic Director of the Vienna Court Opera, a role in which he and the orchestra flourished despite constant difficulties, not least the anti-Semitic attacks on Mahler. He desired more time for composing. His four year old daughter, Maria, died. Within days of her death, Mahler learned he had a severe heart problem and needed to curb his activities. An energetic outdoorsman, hiker, swimmer, Mahler was forced to limit the athleticism he loved. This was not a time of giving up: he became Director of the New York Philharmonic and composed Das Lied von der Erde.  He continued to lead a life of creative accomplishment and leadership given to large institutions. He was not an artist in retirement or an invalid marking time. Having seen tv dramas in which someone plays more than one chess game simultaneously, and having tried but not pursued playing even one chess game at a time, one could imagine an unusual person succeeding at that but could not guess how . The structure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 has a multi-layered complexity put together in a way that creates a unified beauty. It encompasses human emotions and the endless fascination of the natural world. To know one flower, one must look closely and also envision the earth.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the superb, mind-opening, heart-tearing performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, June 13-16, 2019. The Hedgehogs attended the June 16th concert which will be Maestro Tilson Thomas’ last performance with the SFS until his return on September 4. He is taking a leave to have heart surgery, in Cleveland. He was to conduct the Symphony’s programs programs June 20-22 and June 27-30. His composition, Street Song for Symphonic Brass, on the program for June 20-22, will not be performed. His devoted following, truly a chorus of thousands, wish him well and await his return.

 

 

SF Symphony: Transcendent Concert of Berg & Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director

It is rare to hear a concert by the San Francisco Symphony that is not superb, gorgeous, interesting, entertaining. One can easily run out of fresh adjectives and re-use the same ones that are useful to describe the experience of a beautiful performance of beautiful music. The concert on March 24, 2018, however, soared into another realm. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the program of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) with violinist Gil Shaham as guest artist and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902). The performance surpassed any expectations.

Albano Maria Johannes (Alban) Berg (1885-1935)

Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is doubly tragic. Berg died the day before Christmas the year he wrote the concerto; the concerto was his last completed work. It was written to commemorate Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel, Mahler’s widow, and architect Walter Gropius. At age eighteen, Manon died from polio. Berg had known her since her childhood. He wrote “To the Memory of an Angel.” on the manuscript. He dedicated the work to Louis Krasner, a violinist based in Boston who had asked Berg early in 1935  to write a concerto for him. Krasner played the premiere, 1936, in Barcelona. The concerto sums up the passages of the life lost so young. It has two two-part movements. The first is Andante-Allegretto; the second Allegro-Adagio. The Andante has an ethereal, daydreaming atmosphere: a girl watching clouds scud through the sky. The Allegretto is playful and dancing. In the last part, the drama of the girl almost growing up and then twisted with pain grabs the listener physically just below the ribs. The structure of the music in the Adagio refers to a chorale of the Lutheran church that prays “It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You.” The terror of Manon and for her; the need for resignation in the face of inevitable death; the struggle of life to remain alive is reenacted in the soloist striving over the other strings. In the end, the solo violin seems to resolve the pain. There can be acceptance and a fitting harmony with loss.

Gil Shaham, Violinist

Gil Shaham is an extraordinary violinist. His gifts are of the heart as well as in his hands. He plays with verve and power and also tenderness and anguish. His presence as a performer lights up all of Davies Hall.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 travels from sounds of a funeral to renewal of life. There is so much variety of emotion, experience, exaltation on the way that the listener’s senses rocket from depths to heights and back again. Holding one’s breath, afraid to miss any single event in this music it is as though by living with the music one can experience multitudes of lives from the inside rather than from observation. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is justly renown for conducting, teaching, expanding Mahler’s audience. The SF Symphony met every challenge of the music and fulfilled their Maestro’s vision. This is the Mahler symphony with the Adagietto, now so famous that it is often played as a separate piece on classical radio. This quiet, very slow movement could be “Mahler’s heartache” as described by the late music writer, Michael Steinberg, or it could be the most purely sensuous classical music ever written. The symphony ends with raucous, joyful music shouting with exuberance. The listener lived in the music as Michael Tilson Thomas seems to have every phrase and its musical meaning in every cell of himself.

Conducting without a score, the Maestro reminded me of Charles Dickens traveling the world, taking all the parts to enact scenes from his novels. Now, imagine someone else, not the writer of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dickens’ Bleak House being able to recite and act the whole of one of those enormous books with nearly countless characters, events, plots, subplots, descriptions of landscapes and ballrooms. That’s what Michael Tilson Thomas does conducting Mahler. It was a transcendent performance.

Hedgehog Highlight on Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=669     Hedgehog Highlight on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1585

www.sfsymphony.com, gilshaham.com, michaeltilsonthomas.com

photo of Michael Tilson Thomas courtesy the San Francisco Symphony

 

 

 

SF Symphony Tonight! Boreyko, Bernstein, Shostakovich

The Hedgehogs are very excited about tonight’s performance at the San Francisco Symphony. Andrey Boreyko will conduct two exquisite pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Divertimento and Serenade, and the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich. Featured artist is Vadim Gluzman, violin.

Just a week ago, we heard Maestro Boreyko conduct his orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, in Naples, FL. It was a memorable, outstanding performance. There he conducted Bernstein’s Serenade and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. As both Hedgehogs had never before heard the Serenade, we were delighted by the beauty, wit, and inventiveness of this work. Our wish to hear it again comes true tonight. The Naples Philharmonic, under Boreyko’s direction, presented a deeply moving, triumphant performance of the Mahler. Even Mahler lovers brought up by Michael Tilson Thomas could stand with hats off for this musical journey from pain to glory. Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 is an enormous work which may present deeply coded messages about the Stalinist regime which often persecuted Russian artists, including Shostakovich. Though he won some approval for this symphony, his art was always a passionate resistance.

Pictures: Top: Leonard Bernstein, Middle: Shostakovich

SF Symphony: Mahler & Michael Tilson Thomas

e7dd9b0d-be7e-3cfc-b611-1e513fcd6200Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, often called the “Resurrection” Symphony, made up the entire program at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Saturday, July 2. There is more than enough beauty, mystery, passion, and inspiration to fill multiple performances of this one masterpiece. Music Director and Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led his orchestra through a lifetime in ninety minutes of experience, poetry, struggle and sublime music.

Mahler:MTTMichael Tilson Thomas conducting Mahler

MTT has established a reputation as a profound artist and interpreter of Mahler. The many Grammy awards for his Mahler recordings with the SF Symphony attest to that. However, there is never anything “been there, done that” about his performances. At this one, the SFS and its Maestro were truly imbued with Mahler’s energy and spirit. It was as though they channeled the composer and brought him back to us. As Mahler wrote in the poetry sung in the triumphant last movement, “With wings that I have won/in the heat of love’s struggle/I will soar/to the light that no eye can comprehend.” In this performance of the Resurrection symphony, it was Mahler himself who rose again. For the audience, his vision became our vision. We were lifted beyond ourselves.

kelleyO'connorKarinaGauvinMezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor; Soprano Katrina Gauvin

The last two movements were aided and fulfilled by the soloists, Kelley O’Connor and Katrina Gauvin, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. When the Chorus rose as one in the loft seating above and behind the orchestra, it was one of the powerful theatrical moments of the symphony’s performance. Mahler created great, majestic music, but he did not write it to be in artistic isolation. The voices extend the life of the instruments, the presence of the singers and the chorus enlarges the community from which the music arises and in which it dwells. There are other events in the symphony that leave such a powerful image of the making of music and the mission of the music that one can see the extension of life through this art. When the percussionists all beat on their drums, both hands holding drumsticks and beating rapidly, when the horn players quietly walk off stage in order to play from afar out of sight, even when the chorus members steadily turn their pages in unison and we see the turning of the white pages against their black clothes: it is all the total theater that Mahler made in order to make his art in as many dimensions as life. Reading the descriptions of the movements suggests this: “In quietly flowing motion,” “Very solemn but simple, like  hymn,” “Bursting out wildly.” The descriptive power of the music calls forth every emotion, but in the end, “Slow. Misterioso,” there is mystery. On a cd, it will sound wonderful, but being there while Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, singers and Chorus live it is totally different.

Pictures from top, Gustav Mahler; picture of Michael Tilson Thomas by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the SF Symphony; Kelley O’Connor; Katrina Gauvin.

San Francisco Symphony Soars with Schubert and Mahler

 

Schubert

It is possible that the SF Symphony has played as well as it did on April 9, 2016, on other occasions, but how could they have played better? It was an amazing, wonderful performance with every section playing at the top and San Francisco’s Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting. The program itself might be matched for brilliance but hardly bettered: Symphony in B minor, the Unfinished, by Franz Schubert, and Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler. Written nearly a century apart, the two masterpieces made a powerful, emotion wrenching and heart lifting experience. While Schubert’s Symphony in B Minor is called Unfinished, it does not sound like it lacks anything. There are two movements. The first is enlivened by one of the most beautiful tunes every composed. The frequent short hand for why Schubert is so great is that glorious melodies seemed to well up in him faster than anyone could write them, certainly faster than someone who would live only 31 years (Thirty one years! Turn off the television right now. Do something. Go for a walk in a garden. Read. Listen to Schubert). Behind the beautiful tune there is darkness. Schubert breaks the melody; the suspension creates a dramatic halt of breath. Sadness darts behind the melody. There is a sense of mystery in the sadness. Perhaps Schubert stopped with these two movements because he realized he had said what he wanted to say with this music. Perhaps he could not decide where to go next, maybe because these movements are perfect as they are.

e7dd9b0d-be7e-3cfc-b611-1e513fcd6200Gustav Mahler received a gift in 1907, the book The Chinese Flute translated into German. The Chinese poems inspired Mahler to write Das LIed von der Erde, The Song of the Earth. The collection includes the work of several poets of the Eighth Century. There are drinking songs, wistful songs longing for love, songs in which the poet tries to accommodate knowledge of human mortality in his delight in nature, such as in The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow. These beautiful, perceptive, delicate and yet powerful poems reached across the centuries and continents to Mahler’s heart. It was a troubled heart at this time. An avid athlete, he had learned he had a heart ailment which would strictly limit his activities and surely kill him. He had also just lost a daughter, under 5 years old, to diphtheria and scarlet fever.

4d336a3d-15d0-37a9-a6c1-fbd32a88394ath-1   At this performance, the singers were mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill. They both performed with power and sensitivity to the poetry. Their performances were a great match to the SF Symphony’s remarkable performance. Mahler’s music engulfed Davies Symphony Hall in love and wonder at life, whole hearted engagement with our earth despite our own limitations. The San Francisco Symphony was scheduled to perform this program at Carnegie Hall, April 14, with the same singers. Surely it was a concert to knock the socks off the New Yorkers.  Pictures from top: Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler, Simon O’Neill, Sasha Cooke.