Sunday, October 04, 2009

Drowning Ghosts

San Francisco Symphony: Mahler '09 Festival
Michael Tilson Thomas: conductor
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA

Hymnos (1963) Giacinto Scelsi
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1901) Gustav Mahler

The restricted note content of Hymnos - enriched by microtonal variation and overtone spectrum scattered through two "mirrored" orchestras and organ - is composed in a manner that produces an unearthly phantom "choir" sound of difference tones that hovers in the invisible ether beyond the performers on stage. A psycho acoustic effect referenced by the title of the piece. A fleeting glimpse into the transcendent sonic spaces Scelsi explored through meditation and his singular fixation on tone. It's one of the qualities that makes Hymnos such a compelling work.

This phantom choir did not appear at Saturday night's performance. Subdued - or scared off - by the multitude of mortal humans in the concert hall. But mostly drowned out by volume. The unearthly choir of difference tones is easily dissipated by performing too loudly. Which is understandable given the extreme courage it takes to operate at low volume levels in a room full of restless souls squirming and coughing throughout the concert hall. This particular performance was prefaced by a long introduction and explanation of Giacinto Scelsi's aesthetic from Michael Tilson Thomas. Downplaying the intensity of spirituality, meditation and insanity and the roles each respectively plays within Scelsi's music at the expense of over emphasizing his eccentricities is perhaps the correct manner for introducing the uninitiated to this incredible sonic universe. Though I think some of this earnest desire to make the music more broadly appealing may have played a role in softening - in this case "loudening" - a performance more closely attuned to its origins. Meditation as ritual and exotic recourse as opposed to looking unflinchingly within.

Even with these compromises, Hymnos took on brilliant qualities as various details of the composition emerged from the stage. It is an amazing piece that prismatically allows different sonic elements to emerge given any range interpretive liberties. I suspect the phantom choir is absent more often than not.

The second "half" (splitting a program into an 11-minute "half" and a 70-minute "half" making for an oddly unnecessary intermission) featured the workhorse Mahler Symphony No. 5 that most in the hall were there to hear. No introduction. No explanation. Just the sprawling, late-Romantic score unfolding within a language co-opted for nearly a century of Hollywood film scores written in its wake. Moments of exquisite orchestration and arranging glued together with legato string lines. And devilishly well crafted crescendos into crowd pleasing codas. A pleasant piece that draws upon the pathos of Gustav Mahler that not-so-subtly evokes the ghosts of another era. A work that is loud by design, and the symphony played it that way.

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