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Symphony Can't Sell Early Mahler Cantata
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Friday, February 16, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
Among his other virtues, give Michael Tilson Thomas credit for persistence. He's been trying for years to get local audiences to share his high regard for Mahler's early cantata "Das klagende Lied," and he's evidently going to keep right at it.
Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony reprised this hourlong score in Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday night, on the eve of an East Coast tour in which this all-Mahler program -- along with last week's Stravinsky offerings --
will figure prominently.
Perhaps those audiences will have better luck with "Das klagende Lied." From this angle, not even the conductor's impassioned advocacy could make the piece cohere.
It may be that a listener has to love Mahler as deeply and unabashedly as Thomas does to hear this overambitious score as more than simply the first effort of a phenomenal but still undeveloped teenage genius (the score was completed shortly after Mahler's 20th birthday). There are countless dazzling moments packed into the work, yet the cumulative effect is still diffuse, even tedious.
Mahler's text recounts a gripping folktale in which one brother kills another for the chance to marry a beautiful queen. The dead brother's bones lie in the forest until a passing minstrel picks one up and turns it into a flute, and the flute sings out the dark truth at the brother's wedding feast.
This was just the sort of thing that Mahler's imagination throve on, the folklike strain that would come to fruition soon afterward in his settings of the poems from the collection "Des knaben Wunderhorn" and the symphonies he fashioned from them.
"Das klagende Lied" has something of the air of a fairy tale deftly told -- beginning with the seductive introduction, with its scene-setting misty swirls punctuated by a brassy outburst out of "Die Walkure."
Page after page thereafter bristles with engaging musical ideas and brilliant strokes of orchestration. No one but Mahler could have crafted the combination of offstage musicians with the main orchestra, the little exposed violin duets (beautifully played by Nadya Tichman and Mark Volkert), the jaunty tune as the minstrel comes strolling through the forest, or the constant piccolo filigree (Catherine Payne rose superbly to the occasion).
But as magnificent as each individual moment is, the piece lurches in an ungainly manner from one to the next. The effect is like a grab bag of Mahlerian moments -- the composer's distinctive touch is always there, but a listener longs for the symphonies, when he had figured out how to impose order on his fecund inventiveness.
Just as awkward is the young Mahler's handling of his singers. The score calls for four soloists and chorus, and the narrative gets tossed around among them willy-nilly. The first three lines of text, for instance, are sung by tenor, bass and the two men together -- for no apparent reason.
The singer who carries the bulk of the piece, though -- including the flute's accusatory lament -- is the mezzo-soprano, and once again Michelle DeYoung handled the assignment with enormous vitality and aplomb. Soprano Christine Goerke brought clear, bright tone to her part, but both tenor Jon Villars and bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd sounded woofy. Vance George's Symphony Chorus offered rich, finely blended singing.
The short first half of the program was devoted to the Adagio movement from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony, in an engrossing but not entirely satisfying performance. The movement got off to a strong start -- the viola section dispatched the long opening melody with beguiling ease, and the ensuing exploration of the long-breathed main theme was richly drawn -- but both conductor and orchestra allowed the intensity to ebb before the music had run its course.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. tonight FRI and tomorrow 2/17 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $33-$85. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at email@example.com.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page C11