The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, is currently finalizing details for a visit to Taiwan in November, and it doesn’t seem too soon to consider some of their recent issues on CD and DVD.
San Francisco is widely seen as one of the most congenial cities in the US, and its charms have been amply described in one of the very finest long poems of the 20th century, Vikram Seth’s novel-in-verse The Golden Gate. The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is far from homely, however, and while not, or not yet, one of the very greatest world orchestras, it nonetheless has many highly attractive qualities, brought into sharp focus by Tilson Thomas, its music director of the last 17 years.
Of particular interest are the orchestra’s Keeping Score series of DVDs. These are essentially educational in intent, but educational for adults with a sophisticated musical sense as well as for students. The latest in the series (which has already covered Tchaikovsky, Copland, Ives, Shostakovich, Berlioz, Beethoven and Stravinsky) considers the music of Mahler.
In many ways Mahler’s symphonies are ideal SFS material. Tilson Thomas certainly has them close to his heart, and in this DVD he muses extensively on that music’s origins. To do this, he visits the town where Mahler lived as a boy, Iglau (nowadays Jilava in the Czech Republic), and sees in its lay-out the essence of Mahler’s symphonic structures.
Much of one of the two discs is concerned with the composer’s First Symphony, and a performance of the entire work fills up most of the second disc. But after going through the symphony movement by movement, and illustrating its probable origins with film of local military bands and still-active ethnic dance companies, aided by comments by individual instrumentalists from the orchestra, Tilson Thomas surges unstoppably ahead into a consideration of Mahler’s entire musical career.
This makes even the first DVD on its own superb value. We learn of Mahler’s incredibly energetic work as director of the Vienna Opera, together with the frequent assaults on him in the local press, and then of the triumphs and woes of his later life in New York. All this is, needless to say, illustrated by extracts from the music, with brief sung items provided by Thomas Hampson.
One of the DVD’s highlight’s is a trip inside Mahler’s lake-side house of Maiernigg, today in private hands and never before, so the DVD’s makers claim, captured on film. It was a place of great happiness — Mahler would arrive exhausted from Vienna and immediately get onto his bicycle for instant relaxation and recuperation — and great grief, when one of his two young daughters died there.
Tilson Thomas himself is a natural educator, and his enthusiasm is catching. “You know from the light in Michael’s eye,” comments a colleague in a bonus item, “that this is freshly-minted thought and that he’s having a great time sharing it with you.” You do indeed.
Three CDs flesh out the picture of the orchestra, but they’re not without their surprises. The first I listened to, officially released today, includes Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and I immediately thought “Wait a minute — what’s going on here?” There was little of the vibrancy of the Mahler performances, and almost nothing of Beethoven’s high-octane energy. Wagner famously called this symphony “the apotheosis of the dance.” This version seemed to me like the apotheosis of the minuet.