Thursday, September 22, 2011

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Why did I do it? Why did I attend a concert consisting solely of Mahler's Third Symphony? A mere three-and-a-half years ago (a mere blink of time compared to the vast expanse of Mahler's Third), I attended a Redwood Symphony performance under orders to review the thing, and surely once was enough.

Well, this being only the second concert on my SFS series, I didn't have a chance to exchange it for something else. Besides, MTT is supposed to be good with Mahler, though I have my doubts about that. And, though it's Mahler's longest symphony (110 minutes, with no breaks, in this performance), and indeed altogether the longest symphony in the concert repertoire (though there is a Mr W.H. Brian of Staffordshire on the other line who would like to say a few words about that), it's far from Mahler's worst, being an early work from before he had quite perfected the art of composing badly.

Nevertheless, if bad composition is the desired quality in Mahler, and judging from his devotees' preferences it apparently is, MTT made a much stronger move in expressing that essence than did the Redwood Symphony's Eric Kujawsky.

True enough that the SFS, some of the finest orchestral players in the country, far outclassed the diligent but unpaid amateurs of Redwood, except for the horns which were fagged out by the middle. They were particularly skilled at sounding grotesque when Mahler wanted grotesque, which was unfortunately often. And the offstage posthorn solo in the third movement went on and on and on without a single misstep; quite remarkable.

The problem lay in the conducting. MTT was determined to squash any shape out of the long first movement, crushing it into a series of disconnected and pointless, and thereby tedious, fragments, destroying the movement's strikingly unusual multiple-takes structure that Kujawsky had brought out with brilliant clarity. The four intermezzi all melded dully together, instead of standing out for refreshing contrasts with each other, and the chorus in the fifth movement was all packed in the back instead of being spread out antiphonally. Nor was there any sense of conversational exchange between them and the mezzo soloist, Katarina Karneus, whose gravelly voice and theatrically tragic mien made her contributions sound more like Gorecki's Third than Mahler's.

The final adagio was far more elegantly played by SFS than Redwood's by-then worn-out players could manage, though the very fact that they were cool and unwinded made me miss the sense of a long journey completed. The music showed some hints of structure despite MTT's attempts to stamp it out. But it didn't rise to the grandeur and celestial peace of Bruckner, the composer's intended model for this movement. Instead, it sounded whiny, which is how you know that it's Mahler.

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