Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, following up on the week of Gala programming, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) got down to the nuts and bolts of serious concertizing. He returned to familiar ground by revisiting Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony in C-sharp minor, which, by my records, was last performed a little over two years ago, just prior to the Opening Gala for the 2010–2011 season and in preparation for taking the work on a European tour. Because Mahler’s symphony is about 75 minutes in duration, it is usually preceded by a shorter work, from which it is separated by an early intermission.
In 2010 that shorter work was Aaron Copland’s 1924 symphony for organ and orchestra, whose performance would later be released as an SFS Media CD. Last night MTT made an even bolder coupling, choosing to open the program with the West Coast premiere of “Drift and Providence” by Samuel Carl Adams, the product of a commission that SFS shared with the New World Symphony. One might think that a certain element of chutzpah was involved in coupling such a new work with one of the most imposing monuments of the early twentieth-century. However, it is important to remember that Mahler, himself, had championed the challenging music of Arnold Schoenberg, supposedly once telling his wife that, while he did not like the music, “the young are always right.”
Here in San Francisco we have had several opportunities to hear performances of Adams’ chamber music. Anyone who has encountered one of his “Tension Study” pieces, composed for percussion and digitally-enhanced electric guitar, knows that Adams has already progressed beyond petty questions of right and wrong. The challenge facing “Drift and Providence,” however, moved beyond the domain on an exploratory chamber study to a full-blown symphonic context that would have to rub shoulders with Mahler’s fifth.
From this point of view, Mahler’s symphony poses quite a challenge. Beyond the sheer bulk of its duration and instrumental resources, it boasts one of Mahler’s most intricately conceived overall architectures. This five-movement symphony is actually in three parts, made clear in MTT’s performances by performing both the opening two and closing two movements without a pause between them. Furthermore, the final Rondo-Finale movement applies the “finale technique” of revisiting past thematic material. In this process the most poignantly stirring portion of the symphony, the fourth Adagietto movement, gets transmogrified into a jaunty march, which then leads up to the same triumphant chorale theme that had concluded the funereal storms of the first part. This is all as tough an act to precede as to follow.
Nevertheless, the listener open to being drawn into “Drift and Providence” would find there an equally serious effort of architectural elegance. It quickly becomes clear that the connotation of “Providence” in the title is that of the grand designs and supervisions of divine providence; and one could almost think that the title had been found on some newly discovered manuscript of an unknown composition by Charles Ives. Certainly, in “Drift and Providence” Adams has demonstrated a capacity for exploring metaphysics through music that we also find in Ives. Ultimately, the title is a dialectical opposition between a divine plan and things that “just happen” through drift: the blind watchmaker confronts William Blake’s heavenly architect.
Like Mahler’s symphony, “Drift and Providence” is in three parts (albeit much shorter) through which a “plan of progress” is disclosed. It begins on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, where sea meets land, rises to the elevation of Divisadero, and then rises even higher to Providence itself. However, rather than realizing this as a meticulously planned ascent, each advance is achieved through a “Drift” interlude. If we think of each of the three parts as a landscape, then each “Drift” blurs that landscape (or allows the San Francisco fog to set in), only to reveal a new landscape after the blur clears.
Musically this undertaking has been realized by instrumental forces on the same scale as Mahler’s symphony. Because the percussion instruments are spread out behind the orchestra, there is also a decidedly spatial element to Adams’ instrumentation, which, to some extent, is also exploited among the pitched instruments. Thus, in each landscape sonorities are have distinct locations, while that sense of space loses much of its clarity during the “Drift” interludes. Finally, there is an added spatial element of sounds sampled by computer and then directed among four loudspeakers at each of the corners of the orchestral area.
Because “Drift and Providence” is so much shorter than Mahler’s symphony (about twenty minutes), one might initially think there is less to it than meets the ear, so to speak. I also suspect that both MTT and SFS were still working out questions of balance that will ultimately be resolved as the work receives more performances. (I hope I can say “when” rather than “if.”) As had been the case with Mahler’s fifth, “Drift and Providence” defines its own grammatical conventions. As Ferruccio Busoni once put it, both are the products of creative artists who make laws rather than follow them; and it is up to interpreters like MTT to acquaint those of us on audience side with those laws.
In this respect MTT also offered up a reading of the Mahler symphony that, once again, revealed the richness of the composer’s creativity. He captured both the logic of the symphony’s triptych structure and the full depth of the expressiveness of each individual movement. In addition, like any first-rate Mahler conductor, he has a clear vision of the overall landscape of climaxes, giving every dramatic tension its due measure of commitment while making sure that the journey is always fixed on the final chorale and the breakneck coda that erupts into the final cadence.
This was a Mahler performance that planted itself so firmly in memory that it was still resonating on “the morning after;” and, as “Drift and Providence” lends itself to further performance and listening, it may yet achieve a similarly indelible status.