I heard a concert by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, at Carnegie Hall on 4/14. They played the Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony on the first half - - don't they know that I just heard the NY Philharmonic play it last May, and I wasn't particularly interested in hearing it then? Slept through much of it. Hey, just because something is a masterpiece doesn't mean I have to care.
I was there to hear Mahler's *Das Lied von der Erde* (*The Song of the Earth*). I'm a Mahler fan, and this is a piece I had never heard, not even on a recording. I'd been trolling the Carnegie Hall and NY Phil seasons since I moved to New York, hoping for a chance to hear it - - finally it happened. It was worth the wait: a fascinating piece and a marvelous performance.
This piece shows Mahler's strengths and weaknesses: not a lot of melody, not a lot of counterpoint. The harmony isn't particularly unique, though he does use some delicious harmonies. The thing that makes him Mahler is the orchestration. Oh dear GOD the sounds he gets out of that orchestra. And the SFS played like a dream. Maybe the winds were a little too prominent here and there, but they sounded great, so I'm not going to complain. Tilson Thomas clearly has a great love for this music.
Simon O'Neill was the tenor, and he sang gloriously in a thankless part - - relentlessly high, projecting (effortlessly) over a beyond full orchestra, playing at full wail. It was like the most treacherous parts of *Siegfried*, all packed into a few minutes. O'Neill hit every ball out of the park, sounded bright and free and tireless.
The mezzo has the plum role in this piece, and the SFS was lucky to have Sasha Cooke. I heard her a few months ago, playing the pants role in Handel's *Orlando*, also at Carnegie Hall, and this was even more impressive. Mahler gives her the most tender, heartfelt music, and she was feathery and wistful on the top, poetic and full of pathos in the middle, and plummy and rich on the bottom. Lots of other colors, too, those are just some highlights.
The final movement is the apex of the piece, and the very end was breathtaking in the transparency of its composition. Mahler is a masterful word painter.
I flew out of there as quickly as I could - - I would have liked to have stuck around to holler for the singers, the oboist, and the mandolin player. It wasn't that I was tired, let's not forget I napped through much of the first half. I decided to leave rather than get in a fist fight with the people sitting one person over from me. They were a cute young couple, probably in their late twenties. And they were texting all through the Mahler. I gave them many dirty looks, and they were oblivious. I was tempted to reach over and just take the iPhone, but I was afraid that would cause a disturbance, and it would be rude to the poor guy between us.
I tried to figure out why this bothered me so much. Of course, as a performer, I see it as an insult to the performers, and equally of course, the performers can't see what's going on three blocks uptown in the upper balcony. But it's distracting to the other audience members. The performers are weaving a spell, and the spell is broken by this kind of thing. On a more abstract level, it's an insult to Carnegie Hall. But more than anything, it's an insult to GUSTAV FREAKING MAHLER. He did not pour his joy and anguish into this piece to serve as background music to someone sending multiple text messages. Put your phone away, or stay home.