It is 8:00 pm and I just returned home from a Sunday afternoon San Francisco Symphony performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), with Laura Claycomb (soprano), Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), and the full San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin.
The original plan was to take both my Chiro Friend (CF) and the Dancing Cellist (DC) to this concert. But as it turned out, the Dancing Cellist was under a lot of pressure to prepare for her college final exams, which are next week. So on Saturday, it was decided that her mother, the Dancing Poet (DP), would attend in her place. Neither CF nor DP had ever been to a live performance of any music by Gustav Mahler.
DP attended the pre-concert talk with me and CF joined us for the concert itself. The very informative talk was given by the Program Annotator for the symphony, James M. Keller. Keller is a graduate of my alma mater, Oberlin College.
I am not a music critic, nor a music journalist. So I don't intend to write a review of this, or any other, concert. I intend to describe my life in music in this blog, and that is all. I will write about what I personally experienced in hopes that the reader might find this of some use.
On the drive home, one word came to mind to describe this performance. It is magnificent. Look it up and you'll find the following words as synonyms for this word: grand, splendid, majestic, superb, glorious, impressive. They all apply.
There is no way to describe this experience in words. One simply must experience the music directly oneself. And that is what I encourage everyone to do.
I am partial to Mahler. He and Bob Dylan are the two musical giants who have meant the most to me in my life and have had the most impact upon me as a listener. So perhaps I came to the concert with a bias in favor of this piece of music. But upon its conclusion, both CF and DP were excited about the performance and were very happy to have spent the afternoon in this way.
I am not a critical listener. That is, I am not listening for things that I might criticize. I am there to experience the sound and see where it takes me. With a larger than usual orchestra and the full chorus and two soloists, there were probably somewhere between 200 and 250 dedicated musicians, between those on stage and the horns, trumpets and percussion in two locations offstage. Surely each one has spent thousands of hours learning their craft and practicing their instrument to master its use, in order to win the right to sit on that stage to play for us today. For most, they did not do this in order to make a fortune or to become world famous. They did it because of their love of music. And to my mind they are doing God's work, elevating the consciousness of those who pay to see them perform.
So I have tremendous respect for these world class musicians. And in recent years, this orchestra under the direction of MTT has recorded the full cycle of Mahler symphonic works and has gained a world-wide reputation for being an excellent Mahler orchestra. We are very fortunate in the SF Bay Area to have this great symphony available for our listening pleasure. So I considered it a great honor for me to be able to hear their performance of this work.
I am open to feeling whatever emotions and feelings the performance might bring my way. Before they began to play, I was feeling nervous and anxious, just like I used to feel before I performed music in my childhood. Perhaps I was reliving some of those feelings, or perhaps some of those feelings were coming from some of the performers or others in the hall, or both. Whatever their origin, those feelings went away as the music began to be performed, just as they used to do when I was a young performer.
Now understand that this work deals with the subject of death and resurrection. Mahler originally called what eventually became the first movement Funeral Rites and the fourth and final movements specifically address death and resurrection in the words sung by the soloists and chorus. In that way, this is serious music, dealing with a serious subject. For me this had special meaning, as I have been going through the mourning process after the loss of a love of my life, Marcia (RIP). And it is this loss that has directly led me to this rejuvenation of my musical life and the series of concerts that I will be attending during these next few months.
In preparing for the concert I had read the chapter on the Second Symphony in a Mahler biography I own. And I had listened to a number of performances of the symphony, both on CD and with You Tube videos. The latter mostly consisted of performances by the NY Philharmonic directed by Leonard Bernstein and an 8/30/98 performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Simon Battle. The latter videos have excellent video quality, as well as subtitles with the English translation of the singing in the final two movements.
On three separate occasions during the final days leading up to the performance today, I had burst into tears while watching the last eight minutes of the Rattle/CBSO performance. In each case I was watching the video with a great deal of interest, but not in any sort of morose state, and each time my tears had simply burst out unexpectedly as I watched. Each time this grief was accompanied by thoughts about Marcia. And each time it felt like a healing experience.
Perhaps part of my nervousness before this performance was over wondering whether I might find myself bursting into tears during this performance as well. Our seats were in the middle of the second row, less than ten feet from the edge of the stage. I didn't want to cause a scene. So before it started, I warned both CF and DP about this possibility, so that they would not be thrown off by it, if it should come to pass.
Well it did not happen that way. But the music did move me in significant ways at many points during the performance and at three different points (not the same point as when I watched the videos) tears began rolling down my cheeks. I just let them roll. I didn't even wipe them off, not wanting to direct any of my attention off of the performance. And once again these felt like healing moments.
As I thought about all this on the drive home, I realized the point I wanted to make in writing about this experience. And that is that far too many people these days are missing out on these experiences. There was one empty seat in the first row right in front of us, but mostly the concert looked to be sold out. But I had been able to buy my tickets only six weeks before the concert. For such a large metropolitan area, this tells me there are a huge number of people who don't have the slightest idea what they are missing by not attending concerts by this world class symphony orchestra.
Perhaps I should keep this incredible secret to myself, as it certainly makes it easier for me to get tickets. But how does this affect our culture and the overall well-being of our population? As Dr. Karl Paulnack has said, attending a performance of Mahler's Second "...can be a very deep transformative life saving experience." And as he said in his Welcome Address to new students at The Boston Conservatory, "music is a basic need of human survival."
He concludes his Welcome Address by saying the following.
"Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do."When one first reads his statement, perhaps it seems like hyperbole, wishful thinking. But when you directly experience the majestic power of great music performed by a great symphony orchestra, his statement begins to feel both plausible and right. Surely this is God's work.