Wayfarer crests

The San Francisco Symphony sails through Mahler


In heaven, apparently, there's really good asparagus. Damn fine string beans, too.

So writes the composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), somewhat kookily, in the incandescent ode to the afterlife called "We Enjoy the Delights of Heaven" that caps off his typically over-the-top Symphony No. 4. And if Measha Brueggergosman, the too-hip barefoot soprano delivering the news in German ("Gut' Spargel, Fisolen!") hadn't been so dazzling — or dazzlingly backed by the San Francisco Symphony — my bf and I would have succumbed to an unholy giggle-fit in our seats. Seriously, asparagus?

That was a couple years ago, however, before foodie culture had tightened its iron crème-brûlée-cart grip on the Bay. Now, thoughts of angelic asparagus and legumes aux cherubim seem only natural, and the main question would be, "Yes, but are the vegetables in heaven local?"

There are more substantial ways that Mahler's massive output — currently being explored by SFS in an ongoing stream of self-released recordings and annual Mahler extravanganzas, the latest of which takes place Sept. 16-Oct. 3 — seems up-to-the-minute. Mahler, with his ecstatic song cycles and otherworldly symphonies, was the last, and arguably the most bombastic, of the Romantic composers, attempting to transform the shuffling grunts of our mortal coil into a celestial star-chart of the Soul. If there's one thing a quick listen to indie rock and dance music of the past two decades, from My Bloody Valentine and early rave to Animal Collective and the Field, shows, it's that we're in the midst of a similar period of musical transcendence through sensory overload.

Yet despite his yearning for earthly oblation, Mahler always kept both ears to the ground. His symphonies (SFS presents No. 1 and No. 5 this year) are whirligigs of pastiche, scandalous at their debuts for including tavern tunes, folk dances, mechanical noises, self-quotations, stage directions, shock tactics, even a slightly tipsy rendition of "Frere Jacques." To my ears they sound like DJ mixes of DJ mixes, each separate movement an isolated act of alchemical distillation. If the sum of the exquisite parts doesn't quite exceed the whole — Mahler always seems to be reaching for the same perfect conclusion, and is never less than full-on intense, even in his more hushed passages — the individual moments are ravishing. I dare you to sit through SFS's exhilarating new CD of Symphony No. 8, the so-called "Symphony of a Thousand," and not leave your body a few times.

Another contemporary relevance: Mahler was a bundle of shifting identities and internal contradictions. He was a Jew who unhesitatingly became a Catholic to score a major conducting gig yet quit Europe for America due to rising anti-Semitism there, a Bohemia-born, Germany-raised, Austrian citizen, an advocate of complete creative freedom who obsessed over his status in the canon. He was a composer who conservative critics accused of abetting the rise of the labor movement with his yen for popular music and whom other critics abandoned for more avant-garde experimenters. According to Alex Ross in his juicy book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Picador, 2007), Mahler agonized over the question, "Can a man win fame in his own time while also remaining a true artist?" Culturally, we've moved beyond that question a bit, and sure, Mahler's Facebook updates would be atrocious (total oversharer), but in his struggles and ambiguities he's of the now.

One way Mahler released some of the pressure of his churning personality was through song. Voices are everywhere in his work, popping up in the middle of symphonies, vertiginously interlacing and often opposing each other. Ventriloquism reigns supreme.

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