A chief reason San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) continues to maintain a strong hold on Bay Area audiences after over 21 years at the symphony’s helm is that he keeps trying to come up with new and interesting ways to entertain and educate them.
A case in point is the SFS current semi-staged performance of Mahler’s cantata, Das klagende Lied. The fact that he is even performing this very early work that Mahler wrote as a student is novel enough; but to perform it in a semi-staged version really is pushing the envelope. The press people at the SFS claim the MTT performance is the first semi-staged version ever of this work.
Semi-staging opera, Broadway musicals and cantatas have become a MTT specialty of late. The absolutely first rate team he assembled for this purpose created a brilliant semi-staged version of Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ in 2014; highly successful musicals like ‘On the Town’ and ‘West Side Story’; Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; and an extremely popular new musical based on MTT’s maternal grandparents, the Thomashefskys, superstars of the late and lamented US Yiddish Theater. Who else in the conducting business is doing stuff like this?
But the question that kept reverberating in my mind as I watched and listened to the San Francisco performance was why the SFS was making such a lavish expenditure of effort and resources on such a clearly inferior work. There is a reason—and a good one-- ‘Das klagende Lied’ rarely shows up on orchestra programs.
MTT clearly doesn’t agree with the conventional assessment. The SFS music director pulled out all the stops in attempting to make the case for Mahler’s student work. He used four top soloists—the wonderful Sascha Cooke, Joelle Harvey who has never sounded better, the formidable German tenor Michael Koenig and Brian Mulligan.
To stage the action, the production team built a very effective curved platform along the back of the Davies stage behind the orchestra. The lighting was inventive and fascinating. The visual images projected on to the back wall were superb in their evocative power. Only the dancers proved a dud.
No doubt about it, this was a terrific performance from a talented team of advocates.
But in the final analysis it simply is not possible to make chicken soup without chicken. The very derivative score (Wagner and Brahms) proceeds in fits and spurts, lurching willy-nilly from one theme to another; the extraordinarily abrupt ending is an object lesson in how not to do it. No wonder Mahler never wrote an opera!
MTT should take his formidable production team and put them to work on a true masterpiece like he did with Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’. The great American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke wants to do concert versions of ‘Tristan und Isolde’—I know, she told me so recently in Amsterdam. (Informed sources tell me that very soon Ms. Goerke will be at the San Francisco Opera in one of her signature roles).
All MTT has to do is pick up the phone. That’s a project that would create a real stir in the Bay Area!
The highlight of the evening for me was the wonderful performance before the intermission of Mahler’s ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’. Sasha Cooke, who gets better with every passing year, did a fantastic job with this song cycle. And MTT proved himself the great Mahlerian he is with a moving and knowledgeable accompaniment.
Now that’s the Mahler we want to hear!