18 September 2009


I went to the Symphony on Thursday night excited about the Ruckert Lieder, but it was the Mahler 1 that thrilled me. As they say, that’s why they play the games.

Not that there was anything particularly wrong with Susan Graham’s performance; her voice was lovely, soft and gleaming. But to me she sounded underpowered (and she was completely drowned by the orchestra at the end of the final song, Um Mitternacht); she had conviction but not force. We were asked to be especially quiet, since the songs were being recorded. I thought this was a reasonable request, but it brought out the rebel in some around me. Being asked to be considerate of others can do that. I’d say they should just grow up but if these people were any older – well, they’d be dead. There was chatter between each song (“That was lovely!”), much rustling and creaking, and even thumb-twiddling by the woman next to me.

Things weren’t helped by the Symphony’s decision to print the text of the five songs on three pages, and then to change the order in which they would be sung, which led to much audible page-flipping and pointing back and forth. Once again I'm baffled that the Symphony doesn’t use surtitles and tell people to put the programs away, especially if they’re going to record.

I ended up fleeing to an empty seat a few rows back during the intermission, which didn't make a whole lot of difference, thanks to an old woman a few seats away from me who flipped through her program restlessly and relentlessly and wanted to illuminate the evening for the rest of us with her keen insights (“This is some symphony!”). When Mahler said that the symphony should encompass the world, I wonder if he was including the annoying noises of symphony patrons.

But the irritations didn’t matter too much, because though I tend to run hot and cold on Michael Tilson Thomas, this was definitely a hot evening. The symphony flowed beautifully and clearly in its varied moods; I sometimes think he can make pieces pound too much, but this time I really felt that I had walked through the woods and mountains of Austria because I’d heard this music performed this way. He looked quite happy, smiling and bobbing up and down as he led the bucolic first movement.

I particularly liked the third movement, the funeral march based on Frere Jacques. It reminded me of a segment in Kurosawa’s late film Dreams, in which a wanderer stumbles onto a fox-spirit funeral procession (I just checked my memory at IMDB – it’s a wedding procession, not a funeral; I retain my original error instead of silently correcting it as a tribute to the Vienna of Mahler and Freud). The line of well-dressed fox-spirits is in midshot, walking slowly and ceremoniously, and they all turn their faces simultaneously to the observer when they sense his presence. This performance of the funeral march had that same touch of the otherworldly and grotesque under a strange and moving solemnity, ending in quiet splashes of sound (perhaps the cymbal?) before we switched to the awesome trumpet blasts of the finale.

So that was pretty delightful – at least, the musical portion of the evening. I had gone to the Asian Art Museum beforehand, and came across an announcement in the lobby that from October through January the museum would no longer hold late Thursday hours. So much for having something fun and interesting to do while I'm killing time before the inevitable 8:00 p.m. curtain. No reason was given for the change. I think this is a real shame, as it eliminates the best time for office workers to go to the museum. Now I guess we get to trek back in to San Francisco on weekends, when the museum is sure to be crowded. If the closure is for financial reasons, I wish they had considered closing an extra day during the week, which would probably save them more anyway.

And then starting this very week BART reversed one of the few things it’s done in recent years that have helped riders: non-rush hour trains are now back to arriving twenty minutes apart, instead of fifteen. I know that may not sound like much, but it actually makes a tremendous difference in the timing of the trip home, particularly when you have to work the next day. They needed to cut costs so that they could continue to give grossly inflated salaries and benefits to their worthless, lazy employees. Of course I arrived at the station about a minute after the train had left. To make matters worse, they run short trains (only four cars, out of a potential ten) at that hour, so they're already packed and noisy by the time they reach Civic Center. I guess in a way I have to salute BART’s total dedication to making each expensive ride as lousy as possible.


Civic Center said...

That's some major league kvetching. Thanks for the heads up about the good Mahler First. Hope MTT and the orchestra are in the same good mood on Saturday.

Civic Center said...

Update: They were not just in a good mood but playing on all cylinders. It was a great performance, particularly the last movement. And Susan Graham wasn't overpowered by anyone on Saturday. Though the first four songs sounded pretty and subdued, her final "Mittelnacht" was opera diva take no prisoners radiant.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Judging from reports on Wednesday's concert, they have been getting progressively better with this program. Too bad they're not playing it today; they'd probably blow Davies up, which can only help.

Civic Center said...

Actually, they are playing it today at a matinee. I will watch for flying shards of glass.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Duck and cover!