In Mahler, Elegance and Expressiveness as a Balm for Our Time

02/07/2018

Mahler: Sasha Cooke (mezzo soprano), Pacific Boychoir (Andrew Brown [director]), women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin [director]), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 28.6.2018. (HS)

Sasha Cooke (c) Vero Kherian

Sasha Cooke (c) Vero Kherian

Mahler – Symphony No.3

There may be no more elegant response to what’s happening in our world today than Mahler’s Symphony No.3. If the feeling persists that so many things we value in our western civilization are falling apart, the San Francisco Symphony’s stunningly rich, vibrant and expressive performance showed us a way to heal the wounds and bring us all together again.

Yes, it was that powerful a reading Thursday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the first of three in the final subscription program of the 2017-2018 season. The music boomeranged from joy to despair, from heartfelt passion to moments of muted desperation, with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra reaching a breathtaking level of emotional intensity and jaw-dropping technical execution. When they stepped into the spotlight, soloists within the orchestra delivered big-time, as did mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in her evocation of Nietzsche’s ‘O mensch! Gib Acht!’.

Tilson Thomas and this orchestra have been around the block a few times with this piece, including a CD release in 2011, but it has never sounded quite so sharply etched.

Mahler’s monumental work, spanning an hour and 45 minutes, begins confidently with French horns enunciating a high-spirited melody, punctuated by exclamation points from the full orchestra. But before anyone can catch a breath, it all crumbles into oscillating low brass and bassoons and the thrum of a funeral march. Attempts at more invigorating music disintegrate again and again into sadness and woe throughout the 35-minute first movement. The final pages put up a brave front but the positivity seems too perfunctory.

Principal trombone Timothy Higgins’ beautifully shaped and gripping extended solo set a high standard for the other individual contributions. Principal percussionist Jacob Nissly turned short flourishes on the bass drum into moments of portent and dread. Associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman (who also captained glorious playing by the strings) perfectly captured the violin solos, their sweetness hiding despair. It all came together seamlessly.

And then, the lighthearted third-movement, Blumenstück, danced its minuet as delicately as a full orchestra can, followed by a sustained moment of musical incandescence. Principal trumpet Mark Inouye’s long, legato rendering of the posthorn solo unfolded magically in the setting of ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, one of the composer’s Wunderhorn songs. The strings laid down a supple carpet of simple harmonies over which the mellow, haunting sound of the miniature horn floated—utterly unforgettable.

Cooke’s turn came next, her voice pure and present, applying impeccable technical command and depth to the Nietzsche song at its core. Against a plush carpet of quiet strings, with beautifully sustained sound, she sang the searing words (‘Deep is the pain! Joy deeper still than the heart’s sorrow! Pain says: Vanish’).

As the next movement shifted to the unabashedly cheerful, Cooke’s sobering interjections framed the sunny material of the women’s and boys choruses in the other Wunderhorn song that appears. The music foreshadows the vocal finale that developed this same material in the Fourth Symphony. It raises our hopes. And then the last movement brings us back to earth.

The Adagio finale begins with a quiet D-major chorale, but it cannot sustain itself and dissolves in pain. Tilson Thomas corralled the emotional power that comes from the contrast between forward momentum and retreat, and back again. The orchestra made its way haltingly, through grit and increasing beauty, to glorious iterations of the chorale, in shining brass, shimmering strings and sweet woodwinds. The full brass section distinguished itself in the final perorations, creating power shaded with grace, finishing against triumphantly pounding timpani.

That hair-raising, majestic climax may well be the medicine we all need today: a reminder of all human civilization can be, and a catharsis that only music of this magnitude can achieve.

Harvey Steiman

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