Mahler cantata given deluxe treatment

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday January 18, 2017
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Gustav Mahler and Michael Tilson Thomas go way back. If MTT has spent a large part of his own musical career exhaustively re-examining the great composer's works, the very least we can say is that he keeps finding new and interesting aspects. He is always eager to share the results, and his long championing of what some refer to as Mahler's early manifesto, the cantata Das klagende lied, is a good example. The maestro served up a semi-staged version of the folklore-inspired score last week at Davies Symphony Hall with a little help �" well, actually a lot of help �" from his friends.

Clearly a work exhibiting the talent of a budding genius, the Song of Lament is boldly ambitious and offers many hints of the masterpieces to come. If Mahler never wrote an opera, this gives an idea of what might have been. The allusions to Wagner are apparent, and the libretto, by the composer himself, gives more character to individual vocal soloists than most works in the genre. Still, it isn't an opera or ballet, and the recent production ultimately showed more flaws in the dramatic pacing than a more traditional interpretation might have. That isn't to say it wasn't entertaining and often stimulating to observe.

Director James Darrah has partnered with the SFS before, in presentations ranging from the triumphant (Britten's Peter Grimes, Bernstein's West Side Story and On the Town) to the good (Peer Gynt and The Flying Dutchman) to the downright grotesque (the score-obscuring multimedia treatment of Beethoven's Missa solemnis).

Tenor Michael Konig (right) in San Francisco Symphony's semi-staged version of Das klagende lied at Davies Symphony Hall. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Symphony

Beautiful projections by Adam Larsen and evocative lighting by Pablo Santiago helped Ellen Lenbergs' handsome set and Sarah Schussler's ethereal costumes appear suitably mythical for Darrah's storybook vision of Mahler's dark exploration of sibling rivalry and reprisal. Ragnar Bohlin's magnificent SFS Chorus and MTT's hearty band of orchestral musicians added gravitas and urgency to the obscure tale.

The accomplished and graceful young dancers could probably have been dispensed with, but the quartet of vocal soloists was positively riveting. American baritone Brian Mulligan and German tenor Michael Konig, both making their SFS debuts, are no strangers to the musical stage, and Mulligan is fast becoming a regular at the San Francisco Opera. His unforgettable Sweeney Todd foretold an acting credibility that matches his fine voice, and Konig's resonant tenor impressively certified his international opera reputation.

Soprano Joelle Harvey was a pure-toned and easily audible soloist, and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke has a long track record with MTT, the SFS and Mahler. Her distinctive voice is especially well-suited to the repertoire, and her ability to convey a sense of strength, even in moments of aching vulnerability, is totally convincing.

The program opened with Mahler's brief and rarely heard (except in SF) Blumine, with fine solo work from Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye. The first half ended with Sasha Cooke's deeply felt Songs of a Wayfarer. Sung with supertitles but without "staging," the simple approach proved Mahler doesn't need to be gussied up in order to be understood.

The lavish treatment of Das klagende lied was hopefully appealing to first-time listeners. It was no harm, no foul for MTT fans, and endearing proof of his adventurous life-long advocacy.


Absent conductor

There is another event coming soon that should hold special appeal for music enthusiasts craving a fresh take on classical repertory and concert performance. One Found Sound is a Bay Area arts "start-up" that follows in the lead of groups like New Century Chamber Orchestra and The Knights in NYC by performing exclusively without a conductor. The ensemble is made up of young, local professionals. Many are graduates of the SF Conservatory and other local institutions. The mission uniting the group is a shared goal of creating their own opportunities and breaking from established traditions.

OFS performs in smaller unconventional venues such as breweries or art galleries, on the same level as the audience, all within touching distance. Performances generally last little over an hour, with plenty of breaks to enjoy food, drink and chat. It's a fun, affordable and informal concert experience, geared especially for younger listeners and anyone desiring a more intimate connection with classical musicians.

Heron Arts (7 Heron St., San Francisco) is the setting for the final performance in One Found Sound's fourth full season, on Fri., Feb. 3, at 8 p.m. It features chamber music by Ravel, as well as orchestral works by Debussy and Respighi. Single tickets are available in advance, or at the door (slightly higher). More info can be found at