And The Bridge Is Love
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 5
Gil Shaham (violin)
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
“There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.
Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond
The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,
For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!
But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.”
John Crowe Ransom
Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter
The rather obvious connection between the two works offered last evening at Carnegie Hall by the San Francisco Symphony was that they were inspired by a mother and her daughter. Alma Schindler, soon to be Mahler, was the recipient of the adoring missive that is the Adagietto movement of Gustav’s Symphony # 5, while her daughter, Manon Gropius, was the posthumous dedicatee of the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg. There are other similarities to consider as well. The fourth movement of the Mahler is a love song that sounds like a dirge; the entire Berg composition is a eulogy that could easily be mistaken for a declaration of adoration. Further, Mahler personalizes his Abelard and Heloise poem with quotations from Tristan, a work not only generally evoking romantic love, but with deep personal suggestions for his composition student fiancée. Berg expresses his grief stages most poignantly by invoking a Bach chorale at the height of his angry phase: order and peace (and the illusion of the diatonic) bring comfort. For lovers of this concerto, the next months are a showy floral tribute: in April Pinchas Zukerman performs the piece with the New York Phil, in May Christian Tetzlaff with James Levine’s MET orchestra, and tonight Gil Shaham.
Mr. Shaham’s version was certainly technically impressive, but he seemed to reach the acceptance stage scandalously quickly, Evelyn Wood meets Kubler-Ross. The emotional content of the work was subsumed almost to the point of strangulation as both soloist and conductor conspired to deliver a rather flatline performance, not emphasizing any of the rhythmic or embroidered contrasts. Coupled with the dull string section apparently endemic to the Bay Area (Mr. Tilson Thomas has been there for nine years now as music director and they still sound like this? One has to question his ability as an orchestra builder.), this reading was simply uninteresting. Taking the fire out of the Berg concerto is no only a crime, but would seem to be almost impossible without the complicity of the maestro. Perhaps Shaham’s interpretive forays might have been too difficult for this orchestra “from the provinces” to follow properly. It is not inconceivable that T-T asked his soloist to bring it down a couple of notches so all could keep up. What little bit of personal phrasing he was allowed to exhibit was of a rather fitting conversational variety, but this self-effacing rendition reduced these touches to just a smattering of mumbles.
The Mahler (a composer inexplicably considered to be a Tilson Thomas specialty) was also monochromatic, but in a much more irritating way. Here the operative word was loud. With the pitch and the decibel level turned way up, this was Mahler for the hip-hop generation. The first three movements are already very similar in tone and construction and the piece as a whole relies strongly on variety of phrasing and dynamics to keep it from turning into just another academic exercise (Mahler acknowledged the flaw in the work when he pondered its genesis as the result of basic composition lessons that he took as a review with Alma’s teacher and possible lover Alexander von Zemlinsky). In this tedious version with all instruments blazing, the insufficiencies in the melodic/harmonic material were head-poundingly reinforced. Of course, Mahler meant to conduct these pieces himself and so would have taken care of the many-hued contrasts implied in the score at performance time. However, left in the hands of an overrated peacock of a leader, the music had to speak for itself and turned out to have little relevant to say.
Examining just one of many of this performance’s instrumental shortcomings may be instructive. The horn player, called upon by the composer to become a concerto soloist for the third movement, began his part at such a high level of volume that he had no place to go, floundering interpretively throughout as a result. Although he and his echo (the third horn) hit virtually all of the notes (this is unusual in live performance and, as such, should be praised), he never imbued his moment in the sun with any poignancy or empathy (much is there for those who bother to think of this piece as music rather than just dots and lines). After the Adagietto, one lone, tasteful cry of the horn is intended to bring us all back to the real world, leaving the fairyland of strings and harp behind. However, in this meretricious performance, the triple forte note simply jarred, and, when the hornist cracked it quite badly (there is a God after all) it hung over the otherwise silent hall like the residue of a particularly unpleasant flatulence.
Michael Tilson Thomas is an engaging guy. He does, by all accounts, a very good job of community relations and musical ambassadorship. But his reputation as a top conductor is primarily built on his personality, not his musical deliverables. The last time that he conducted Mahler here at Carnegie, my companion and I walked out midway. Last evening, we endured until the bitter end, but the ordeal was no more instructive nor mind-changing than if we had made an early exit. The problem may simply be that he looks a lot better than his orchestra sounds.
Frederick L. Kirshnit