All I Know³
Information, transmission, modulation, and noise – 3rd Edition

SF Symphony :: Adams/Mahler

Sam Carl Adams

This weekend we heard the SF Symphony perform a new work by Sam Carl Adams, a young (27) composer from the Bay Area now living in Brooklyn. (He’s also the son of Berkeley composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O’Grady). MTT conducted a remarkable program that also included an exceptionally excellent performance of the Mahler 5th.

But Sam Adam’s work, Drift and Providence,  was the more remarkable. We tend to expect that, given the chance to compose a piece for full orchestra, a young composer will use that opportunity to throw everything they can think of at you, resulting in quite an unbearable mess. However, what I found remarkable about Sam’s piece is how restrained it was. Definitely a work of sonic colors and not tunes, it had a fairly wide palette, and with a vague reference to the sea there were some recognizable reminiscences of Debussy’s La Mer in the midst. But this only added to the mystery and flow of the piece.

There definitely was a flow, an inertia, that moved the ear along, traveling from one space to another. The SF Symphony is an extraordinary instrument to work with, and the sound colors Sam was able to extract from them here were fascinating, from the very first note (which MTT described as sounding like lighting a match), all the way thru its 20 minutes. And, I suspect that being a bass player, Sam’s ears are tuned to the lower registers better than most, so there were some great subsonics to savor and enjoy.

The words I jotted down on my program at the intermission were just these: colors, restraint, flow, and undertow. Bravos, Sam. And I’d love to hear this one again.

And now for the Mahler: The 5th is certainly a major work, and I’ve heard it many many times. It is one of my favorite Mahler symphonies, altho I tend to drift towards the 7th as being my personal favorite. The 7th is rarely performed, which is good.

trauermarch.jpgI first heard the 5th some 50 years ago in an old mono recording that my Dad had with  Bruno Walter and the NY Phil (or was it the Vienna?). I think it was recorded in the 40′s. I always considered that to be the definitive recording, altho Bernstein, Haitink, Scherchen, and MTT and others could claim the same. At least Walter knew Mahler, so maybe there was some special sauce in that early lo-fi recording. But I loved the “fat” sound of that trumpet in the first measures.

Still, the 5th does hold a special place in my own personal musical history, and I revere it highly. I’ve owned a study score most of my life, and take it with me to any live performance, as I did today. I’ve found that following the score definitely keeps one focused on the music and doesn’t permit the mind to wander. Besides, after buying a recording of a piece of music, I’ve always figured that also buying the score is the highest compliment you can pay to the composer.

And, what a score. So many notes! It always amazes me to think of the effort that Mahler made here, as in all his symphonies.

There’s not much I can say other than it seemed to be a flawless performance, which is what we expect from MTT and the SF Symphony playing Mahler.  One could quibble about a few things, but that’s what makes a live performance different and more exciting than a recording that has been edited and processed ad inf.  I will say that I’ve never quite understood the last movement. It seems to stick out as something having little to do with the emotional turmoil and anguish of the preceding four. It’s very odd, a real rousing and long, repetitive circus piece with a Hollywood ending. I tend to just focus on the impeccable orchestration when listening and try to ignore the basic question of why it’s there. (Which is why I like the 7th more, because it all seems to fit together better).

The first four movements are all, of course, infected with the dit-dit-dit-dah theme of another 5th, Beethoven’s. But how Mahler turns that motif around and around, from funeral march, to silly Tyrolean ditties, to the most serious and dramatic outbursts — it’s total magic. And, then there’s the 5th movement … oh well. It’s a mystery.

Bravo to MTT, the Symphony once again, and to Sam. A great time was had by all.

For a much more professional review of the performance, see Tommasini’s


Disneyland 9/2012

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Richard Friedman lives in Oakland, CA, is a freelance tech writer/editor, web designer, photographer, is a Director of Other Minds, wrote his first computer program in 1962 for the IBM 650. It played dice. He is also a ham radio (AG6RF) operator, and he also takes a lot of photographs, composes music, and does a weekly radio program on KALW called Music From Other Minds.
He is not Kinky.

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