Surround at Work - Part 3 Page 2

Michael Tilson Thomas: Multi-Mahler

In a gutsy move, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have launched their own label, SFS Media, by taking on no less than a new cycle of Mahler's symphonies - all to be released exclusively on multichannel Super Audio CDs. (They're "hybrid" discs, meaning you can play them, in regular stereo, on standard CD and DVD players.) Based on the first release, a two-disc live recording of the Sixth Symphony, the result is a triumph for all involved. Despite the heightened emotions that must have pervaded the performances - which began one day after September 11, 2001, as originally scheduled - the Sixth flows naturally to its exultant conclusion without overly

Photo by Terence McCarthy. 

dramatic gestures. And the four-channel sound is full-bodied but clearly delineated when called for, as in the surround-channel placement of lower brass, percussion, and the famous cowbells. I spoke with the conductor just prior to the release of the latest installment, the First Symphony. - Robert Ripps

How was the decision made to launch SFS Media with multichannel SACDs?

For a number of years, I've been working with Andreas Neubronner and his team at Tritonus Music Production, and we've talked about the cinematography of sound - how wide, how distant, how contrasting it can be - and the endless search for a conception where you hear a large overall sound but within which you hear as much detail as possible. We thought about this a lot for one of my last BMG recordings, the Ives project [An American Journey, reviewed in July/August], because I had heard demos of this new surround technology, and the most striking thing was the sense of space - and particularly in Ives, you're after that element. You want to realize as much as possible the sense of where the music is coming from. So we recorded that project in a way that would make it possible for multichannel remixing at a later date.

It's a great recording, and it seems a natural for surround.

I hope someday it will be done. Then we had the idea of doing our own Mahler project; [like Ives], Mahler is using a large orchestra. He even says in his instructions that this should sound like it's from an extreme distance, and that should be a bit closer. There are little ensembles within the orchestra that are meant to sound like a chamber group, while other things are meant to sound like . . .

. . . a whole world?

Yes. So this seemed to suggest we should present it in a way that could be experienced now, for listeners who have the technology, and later, for those who will have it in the future.

Are you using surround to recreate the live performance or to go beyond it?

I'm trying to create the big spacious picture of music in the hall, but at the same time, some of the more acute, up-close perspective I'm hearing from where I am. Those are subtle things [as opposed to] dramatic changes with instruments popping up and disappearing. We're certainly not doing that.

Do you have a wish list of things you'd like to do in multichannel?

Actually, there are some large pieces of Cage and Feldman, since they involve instruments deployed over very wide spaces. It would be wonderful to do some [late Renaissance] Venetian music, too, with all those choirs and organs and soloists in such a large spatial field. And one day, I'll go back and do all of the Debussy pieces again. It's just so thrilling to be on the stage inside that whole Debussy orchestral mechanism. Allowing listeners to be in that space will be wonderful.