Mahler No. 6 in San Francisco

Mahler: Symphony No. 6, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 13.5.2011 (HS)

I hope the folks in Vienna are prepared for what the San Francisco Symphony is bringing them. In the longest stop (May 21-25) on the orchestra’s two-week European tour, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas leads three Mahler symphonies in the city where the composer was born. In their final concerts in San Francisco before leaving for the tour, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra, who have just completed a 10-year project recording all of the symphonies, previewed the Second, Ninth and, this week, the Sixth. They did more than just refresh them. They wrung them out, shook them sharply and invigorated them with an high-intensity electric jolt.

The Sixth, heard Friday, crackled with energy from the very first notes. Conducted at a brisk pace, the opening pages came at the audience with a power and inevitability that set the tone for the evening. This was a no-holds-barred approach to Mahler’s darkest symphony, twisting and turning but always pointing toward those fatal, powerful hammer blows in the finale.

No, on reflection, in this performance those famous thuds themselves pointed to that thundering final A minor chord. As it should, it came out of nowhere, a last nasty surprise in the symphony’s depiction of the belly punches life inflicts on us. Prior to that, throughout the finale, Mahler repeatedly sinks back into minor after first establishing a hopeful major chord. But this time, as the strings recede into what at first seems like a quiet, resigned conclusion, the full orchestra, underlined by crashing percussion, sounds that muscular A minor chord without even a gesture at a major one. Immediately it starts to recede, and as it does different textures and colors come into focus and fade against a diminishing tattoo from the drums, finally sinking into a morass punctuated with a last-gasp pizzicato pluck of low strings. That wasn’t just a chord; it was a whole world swirling past in a few seconds – a perfect, wrenching finish.

This was a very different performance from the last time Tilson Thomas conducted the work. It occurred in September 2001, only days after the 9/11 Al Qaeda hijacked airplane attacks on the World Trade Center. The music’s hard-edged, steely message of fate, interspersed with moments of incandescent beauty, provided a highly emotional catharsis for those of us in the audience. Those performances, captured on digital tape, came through vividly on the first CD in the Mahler series the orchestra recently completed. This time, only days after U.S. forces finally tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, not a shred of triumph came through – only the sense that life can be grim despite moments of beauty. Tilson Thomas emphasized the speed at which life comes at us and the grim inevitability of having to deal with it.

The second movement, a sardonic parody of the opener, if anything upped the ante on nastiness. Here, as throughout, the players responded with precision and a sense of definition that pulled together the opposite poles of harshness and loveliness in the music. That continued into the finale, which despite its fast-moving pace breathed enough to relish the major-minor conflicts in the harmonies.

Beauty emerged in several disembodied interludes that interrupt the first movement’s marches and storms, where the clouds seem to part and offstage cow bells join wafting strings in a breath of mountain air, softly sketched by strings and percussion. And in the gentler moments of the Andante, here played as usual as the third movement, the delicate wonderment of the shifting harmonies and heartfelt melodic gestures could almost make us forget what a horrifying world Mahler created to surround this momentary safe harbor.

After a decade of invigorating Mahler performances by this conductor and orchestra, most impressive about this (and in the Second and Ninth last week) is that having thoroughly absorbed the music, they can find exciting revelations every time they bring it out again. That final chord in the Sixth will be reverberating in my memory for some time.

Harvey Steiman