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Mahler, Thomas Hampson, and MTT

San Francisco
Davies Symphony Hall
09/29/2007 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 34
Gustva Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

Mahler’s Song of the Earth is a great romantic vocal and symphonic masterpiece that we rarely have the opportunity to hear live and in concert. In the hands of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, with the magnificent Thomas Hampson and Stuart Skelton, the song cycle made the entire trip to San Francisco not only worthwhile, but also momentous. The recording that will be issued on CD, will be highly recommended, standing among the finest interpretations of this music.

The evening began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 34, a strange contrast to the Love Fest that was celebrated throughout the Civic Center all afternoon. Like Mozart and Mahler, the festival was imported from Germany, originating in Berlin. The youthful pandemonium outside the concert hall set the scene for Mahler’s’ songs of youth and intoxication. It also intensified the globalized, Blade Runner-like atmosphere of contemporary San Francisco, even at Davies Symphony Hall. Even the 80s architecture of the hall is a kind global, corporate style, like a three-star international chain hotel.

If classical music is engaged in a worldwide metamorphosis, with China looming in its future, then San Francisco is certainly one of the key battlefields. Mahler’s breathtaking song cycle, based on German translations of Chinese poems on life and love and death, was perfectly situated for the diversity of this 21st century urban landscape. San Francisco that evening, half way between Germany and China, made Mahler’s songs feel intimately contemporary, as if akin to the music of the Chinese-American composers Bright Sheng and Tan Dun. The scenarios of the songs felt like scenes from the classical Chinese opera the Peony Pavilion that was staged here in California last year.

The hall was 90% full and in excellent acoustic form, with the acrylic sound reflectors above the stage now perfectly tuned. MTT humorously and repeatedly asked the audience to respect the recording process with their silence. Tilson Thomas conducted without a score, and made everyone laugh by checking the concertmaster’s music, just to make sure of what he was playing that night.

MTT and his symphony brought their rich, full, modern sound to the Mozart. Each note was sharply articulated, but not at all astringent in the style of a period performance. But they seemed to carry the weight of the music in the individual sections and instruments. The feeling was pastoral, stately rather than driven. The conductor drew out the best in his players in a subtly articulated performance. He opened up a space for them to play, drawing discipline from them, rather that imposing it on them. The tempi were not driving or racing, but swift nevertheless, like deer leaping through a meadow. It was attractive and pleasant to the ear.

Mahler’s Song of the Earth is an operatic, dramatic cantata, based on German translations of Chinese poems, much like Ezra Pound’s starkly exquisite Cathay Poems. But Mahler’s musical voyage is so compelling that one can fall in love with the music without understanding the words. In the first song, the “Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth”, the tenor sings “Life is dark, Death is dark.” But the music was so bright and overwhelming that it was like looking into the sun. The opening, with Skelton, was thrilling, the voice and music leaping off the stage. The orchestra was so powerful that it covered Skelton a little, but that was intentional. Then Skelton vied magnificently with the orchestra, in a life and death struggle. In the recording his voice may be more forward, even better. The opening was incredible, the detailing exquisite, both by Mahler and the musicians.

In “The Lonely Man in Autumn” the introductory clarinet and flute solos were superb. Hearing Thomas Hampson for the first time was a revelation. Despite a slight cough, his voice was otherworldly, with a depth of tone that was ghostlike, a quality of voice that I had never heard before. The poetry of the song, a first person monologue of a lonely man looking for rest, was filled with an intimate sadness, a wistful depth, not sweet but deep. His singing of “Mein Herz ist mude” (“My heart is weary”), was gut wrenching.

The song “Of Youth,” from a poem by the master Li T’ai-po, could easily describe a scene from the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion.” The song is a painterly, narrative portrait of a scene, rather than a monologue. Various instruments become characters; the friends “dressed beautifully, drinking, talking, some writing verses.” Stuart Skelton clearly loved this music, rendering a gorgeous, finely chiseled interpretation.

In “Von der Schönheit,” “Of Beauty,” again from a poem by the renowned Li-Po, Thomas Hampson sings as the narrator of descriptive scene, filled with horses and riders and beautiful maidens picking lotus blossoms at the water’s edge. As in the previous piece, the instruments again become characters, including the horses and riders. Hampson's persona looms huge in this song, the greatness of the music overwhelming the hall.

In “The Drunkard in Spring” Skelton showed himself to be truly Hampson’s peer, gifted with a tremendous instrument and great technical prowess. MTT disappeared behind the massive complexity of the music, bringing to life an entire world, exquisitely.

The final song, “Farewell,” tells of old friends parting, deep sadness and love, and is the greatest of all the Songs of the Earth. In this epic performance, the oboes and bass sections were magnificent, and Thomas Hampson heartbreaking. The dialogue of flutes, the horns from across the sea, the incredible trombones and the cello solo, were superb, as well; the instrumental interlude an entire symphonic movement. But perhaps more than any of his other works, “Abschied” leaves us lamenting that Mahler did not write a dozen operas.

Thomas Aujero Small



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