Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony © San Francisco Symphony
It’s well known how dear to the heart of Michael Tilson Thomas is the work of Gustav Mahler, and this week MTT and the San Francisco Symphony delight in presenting to their audiences a program in which the main work is a semi-staged version of Mahler’s Das klagende Lied.
For this work, the San Francisco Symphony is joined by four internationally-renowned vocalists – soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Michael König and baritone Brian Mulligan – a cast of actors and dancers, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director Ragnar Bohlin).
Also on the program are Mahler’s symphonic movement Blumine (Bouquet of Flowers), written in 1884 as part of his incidental music for the stage work Der Trompeter von Säckingen, and an autobiographical work in poetry and music, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrendren Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer).
One of Mahler’s earliest works, Das klagende Lied was originally written as a cantata, but in this presentation, MTT incorporates the skills of a creative team comprising Stage Director James Darrah and Projection Designer Adam Larsen, with scenic designs by Ellen Lenbergs, lighting by Pablo Santiago and costumes by Sarah Schuessler, to create the dark fairy tale kingdom in which the story unfolds.
According to San Francisco Symphony program annotator, the late Michael Steinberg, the title of this work isn’t easy to translate. The German word “klagen” can be translated as “lament” or “complain”. A derivative of this word, “anklagen” means “accuse”.
The story tells of two brothers who go into a forest in search of a particular red flower in order to win the hand of a beautiful, but proud queen. The sweet-natured younger brother is the first to find this flower, which he sticks in his hat, and then falls asleep. His jealous elder brother kills him while he’s asleep, steals the flower and goes on to claim his prize.
A wandering minstrel, walking through the same forest, then happens across a shining white bone, and carves it into a flute. As soon as he plays the instrument, it sings out the tale of the murder, which spurs the minstrel on to find the queen.
At her court, a feast is being held to celebrate the queen’s forthcoming wedding to the knight who murdered his brother. When the minstrel arrives, he plays the flute, which again sings out its dark tale. The new king seizes the flute and puts it to his own lips, whereupon the flute makes a direct accusation of murder against him. At this point, the queen falls to the floor in a faint, the guests flee, and the castle walls collapse.
The origin of the story cannot be accurately determined, however it’s thought possible that it was derived from a combination of a fairy tale, The Singing Bone, written by the Brothers Grimm, a tale unearthed by nineteenth-century folklorist Ludwig Bechstein, and a contribution by Mahler himself. Whatever its origins, it would seem that in this context, “accuse” might be considered the most appropriate translation of “klagen”.
Michael Tilson Thomas says that his goal with this interpretation of Das klagende Lied “ is to take listeners through the beautiful intricacies of this work, using video, lighting, and other elements to ….. illuminate every facet of Mahler’s music” in the hope that “the audience will walk away having had a deeper, more inspiring experience than they might have had otherwise”.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a program of works by Gustav Mahler at Davies Symphony Hall from January 13 to 15. For further information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
San Francisco Symphony program notes by Michael Steinberg: