A friend of mine told me recently that several years ago he was sitting at breakfast thinking that since Coco Puffs are great, and beer is great, wouldn’t it be doubly great to mix the two together? This is undoubtedly the sort of thing Rimbaud was hoping for in urging a deliberate derangement of the senses. You’ve probably already guessed that being great separately did not in this case make for double greatness. A similar impulse must have inspired the SF Symphony to put Mozart’s Sonata in E minor for Violin and Piano as the opener for the Mahler 7. The original first half of the bill, the final scene from Salome, made sense to me historically, thematically, and musically. The only sense the Mozart made is by complete contrast. It’s a lovely piece, but then the Pequod was a trim vessel until Moby Dick smashed her. The substitution was made, by the way, with absolutely no announcement from the Symphony, even though they send both e-mail and postcard reminders for smaller things like the lack of an intermission in the recent Berlioz Damnation and even though Tilson Thomas seems willing to pick up a microphone at the drop of a hat and tell us stuff we’ve already read in the program. No e-mail, no postcard, no announcement from the general director, no sign in the lobby, not even a forlorn little insert in the program that can slip out and litter the floor like autumn leaves. What if my reason for buying a ticket was the Strauss? Could the Symphony really not find anyone to sub for Salome? If they liked Salome with the night-music symphony, couldn’t they do an instrumental excerpt, and isn't the Dance of the Seven Veils kind of made for such excerpting? Years ago a New Yorker cartoon showed a tuxedoed manager before a theater curtain asking, “Can anyone in the house sing Siegfried?” Maybe next time the Symphony can have open-mike night for the first half hour if they just want to kill time. The meaty Mahler would have been sufficient without the lagniappe. Between this and the brouhaha with the Don Giovanni cast, sopranos should watch their backs at the intersection of Grove and Van Ness. No word yet on possible threats to mezzos or counter-tenors. Back to you with the Mozart, Bob.
As I said, the Mozart was lovely, but there’s a quality of intimacy with two instruments that oddly enough you don’t have with soloists (having to do with listening in on communication between two people rather than display), and it makes such a duo not really suited for a cavernous concert hall. The piece is brief, and was followed by an intermission that was longer than the sonata. As for the Mahler . . . I felt bludgeoned. The first few seconds were fine, and then, in my technical way, I thought, Is this supposed to be this loud this soon? And then we had almost 90 minutes of relentless musical climax. Michael Steinberg’s always reliable notes use or quote descriptions like nocturnal patrol, serenade, fantastic chiaroscuro, good-humored victory. I heard the Symphony perform this piece a few years ago and could feel those qualities, and I can feel them in the various Mahler 7 recordings (including the recent one by Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony) that I've been listening to since. This time, I felt that if this were a walk in the night-time woods it involved being repeatedly slammed into rocks by the string section and then garroted by the brass. I sat in the third row, but far to the left away from the brass section; this is almost exactly where I sat for A Flowering Tree, and I did not walk out then feeling that an armored division had just run me over. I was in the very first row for Das Lied von der Erde a few seasons ago and did not feel that I had just been on the losing team in an unusually violent and lengthy football game. To a lesser extent, I had this feeling after the Brahms 4 back in September. Is this some new phase in Tilson Thomas’s conducting? If so, I hope someone pulls him back.