Look Out Europe—Here Comes MTT with Mahler 3

United StatesUnited States Mahler: San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 1.3.2013 (HS)

Mahler: Symphony No, 3 in D Minor


Fasten your seat belts, London, Paris, Geneva, Luxembourg and Vienna. If Saturday’s exhilarating, dazzling ride through Mahler’s sprawling, epic Symphony No. 3 is an indication, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas should stun listeners when it brings it on tour to Europe later this month.

 Mahler famously said that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” That was a dozen years after, while working on the Third, he remarked, to “call it a symphony is really incorrect because it does not follow the usual form. The term ’symphony’—to me, this means creating a world with all the technical means available.”

 With that in mind, what makes the Third Symphony such a challenge is, first, its scope. At 35 minutes, its opening movement (Part I) is longer than Beethoven’s entire Fifth. The remaining five movements (Part II) add more than hour, finishing with a sprawling Adagio that requires utmost concentration from a conductor and the outsized orchestra to define its shape.

 Within that structure, individual solos—and extended moments when unexpected individuals take the lead—segue into ensemble passages that can make clarity an elusive goal. Tilson Thomas and this orchestra, which during their 20-year partnership have made Mahler something of a calling card, embrace all of the idiosyncrasies in Mahler’s score with remarkable precision of articulation. Plus, they bring freshness and new vitality every time they return to one of his works. This concert didn’t take the same approach as the last time they performed the Third, two-and-a-half years ago, nor was this in any way a carbon copy of what it committed to disc in 2004.

 But it did display Tilson Thomas’s signature approach to Mahler, which relies on fashioning each episode into its own moment. Assembling these pieces into a seamless stream of sound is not the goal here, although these highly individualized sequences do come together into a unified whole. Tempo relationships have a lot to do with that, and subtle emphasis on musical gestures that reappear two or three movements later, such as the see-sawing chords first heard as the opening phrases calm down in the first movement, and reappear softly in the gentle introduction to the Nietschze song in the fourth movement more an hour later. It all tied together, eventually.

 Part I, the opening movement, began with blithe jollity, the brass intoning the famous opening measures with rich tone. The bass drum’s muffled, almost feral, transition into the first of several funeral processions was especially well timed. Its enervating rhythm felt almost like part of a jazz solo. Details like this abounded; the conductor took delight in contrasting such dark moments with the bright glare of the perky marches that pepper the first movement.

 Unafraid of sentimentality, Tilson Thomas etched the second movement, the beginning of Part II, with a minuet (“Blumenstück”) of consummate delicacy. He teased out soft, twittery night music in the third movement as the background for gorgeous extended posthorn solos by principal trumpet Mark Inouye from behind the organ divider. The music seemed to waft on air.

 Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke provided rock-solid, supple tone and lovingly articulated text (from “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) for her solo in the fourth movement, sung against hushed clouds of chords. The San Francisco Girls Chorus joined the women of the Symphony Chorus in providing appropriately angelic color in the livelier fifth movement (“Es sungen drei einen süssen Gesang”—“three angels sang a sweet song”), all sweetness and light after the darkness of the preceding two movements.

 The stately, heartfelt, slow-paced finale captured its requisite sense of spirituality, but it had a coiled, barely restrained knot of intensity until the final pages, when richness of sound made the music bloom beautifully into a moving climax. After that, the music finished—as Part II began—by receding into quiet grace.

Harvey Steiman