Sunday, November 30, 2014

Concert Review: Mahler 7, MTT, and SFSO

 Mahler’s 7th symphony has always been considered a “problematic” symphony, not only for its unbalanced five-movement structure, but also for its transition from the dark abyss to the grand, bright, and epic finale. Michael Tilson Thomas has a long history of being an active Mahler interpreter. For Mahler 7 alone, he has recorded it twice, with London Symphony Orchestra in the 90s, and with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in the last decade. I owned both recordings and have long regarded them as a modernist sharp and critical approach. Now it has almost been another decade since their last mahler 7 recording. During the concert on November 19 in the Carnegie Hall, I felt his approach had a significant departure to his earlier interpretation. Although it was a good and elegant attempt, it ultimately failed to deliver artistically and sonically.

the program on Nov 19
The beginning of Mahler 7 is very gloomy. MTT and San Fran did a very good job setting up the tone. The tenor horn player delivered the hauntingly nightmarish melody in the silky-smooth timbre. However, the tone did not progress and develop any further from the beginning for the next three or four minutes. I speculated that it was a result of the program being under-rehearsed and over-performed. By looking at the performing calendar of the orchestra, Carnegie Hall was the last stop on their tour where the Mahler was played, and they had been performing this piece since the end of October! The coarse and lack momentum of the string section might be the result: The strings play an utterly huge part in the first movement of Mahler 7 as if they are the eerie wind of the night, but for many moments in the first two movements, the strings of San Fran Symphony were not playing entirely in unison. It entirely deflated my expectation for the sound of San Fran Symphony, which had always been in the categories of being mercurial and precise in my memories. 

The balance of the orchestra really threw me off. The brass section was particularly unbalanced from the rest of the orchestra. They felt more like solo instruments playing in front of the whole orchestra rather like members from it. Mahler 7 demands a very sharp sound from the brass to melt into the high voices of the strings, but from the sound of the orchestra the two were very apart from each other. At times both sections seem to have a lack of attack. Even when the orchestra was playing at full intensity the two did not have an overwhelming, joint-force effect. On the contrary, MTT’s approach to the woodwind section was rather monochromatically aggressive. At times they almost sounded like percussion instruments rather than woodwinds. This negative experience might partially be the acoustic design of the Carnegie Hall, as my seat was situated in the second tier box, and the sound of the brass might be sent straight through the hall to my seat rather than reflecting off the space.

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Nov 19
Another surprise was the lack of dynamic. MTT always leaves me with the impression of precise rhythmic control, energetic and analytical phrasing from the recordings. During the Wednesday concert, MTT didn’t seem to want to take the opportunity to bite into the rich and detailed writing of Mahler and bring the rhythmic energy out of it. Last year I attended a concert of MTT conducting Mahler 9 with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I remember that even though the string section was not particularly the strength of CSO, it had a really wonderful brilliance through the precise phrasing and the analytical reading under the baton of MTT. With this expectation brought into this Mahler 7 concert, I was much uninspired. It might very much be MTT’s change in approach to Mahler 7. Rather making the symphony clear and analytical, he tried to bring a more coherent quality to the entire symphony in order to tackle the “problematic” transition from night to light. However, with the conscious undermining of the strong contrasting dynamics in the opening movements, MTT missed the most important part of Mahler’s Symphony- the drama.

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