Glorious Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Weston’s new Push is great fun in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Mahler, Weston: Golda Schultz (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 29.9.2022. (HS)

Composer Trevor Weston acknowledges ovation after world premiere of Push © Stefan Cohen

Trevor WestonPush (world premiere)

Mahler – Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’

Settling into his third year as San Francisco Symphony’s music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen is putting his own stamp on works closely associated with his predecessor, Michael Tilson Thomas. Chief among them are the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which Tilson Thomas made something of a calling card for the orchestra, including a monumental complete set on CD that kick-started the organization’s own label.

In that light, this glorious performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ was a revelation of the first order, a miracle of pacing and contrasts from the most subtle to the biggest and broadest. If sometimes Salonen could have made rhythms sway a bit more, the wealth of details he drew from the orchestra, chorus and solo singers made everything fit together seamlessly, not an easy task in Mahler’s sprawling symphonies.

Hushed moments blossomed organically into massive explosions with exquisite control. Deftly attuned punctuations from harps, timpani, muted brass and the flute section added a rainbow of sparkly colors to the main thrust of the music. And what a foray it was! The very first gesture, a muscular tutti that subsided gradually into a whisper, set a perfect tone for fast-paced work from the cellos and double basses which gradually led to statements of the themes that seemed to propel themselves forward on their own power.

Throughout the first movement, the shifts from these nervous opening moments and solemn statements to music of restfulness or sweetness unfolded as if the sudden changes were perfectly natural. The fluidity and gentleness of the second theme, intoned by the strings, segued imperceptibly into the development, shifting from key to key as if with a single breath.

In a perfect world, the graceful three-beat tune that runs through the second movement might have danced with a little more bounce, but careful attention to dynamics and pace created an elegant effect. The third movement flowed nicely, the ‘Sermon of the Fishes’ tune from Das Knaben Wunderhorn making its way smoothly around the orchestra, building inexorably to the crashing climax.

That ushered in the balm of ‘Urlicht,’ another Wunderhorn song, this one featuring the bronze-tinged voice of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. Salonen created a sense of time-stood-still in this movement, even as the music had just enough urgency to make its final quiet reverie feel especially poignant.

After the fifth movement interrupted rudely with a massive outburst from the full orchestra, Salonen explored all the tunes we have heard so often and a few new ones, including the ‘Resurrection’ theme, and made all this seemingly unrelated material cohere naturally. Offstage horn calls and another offstage brass band provided the requisite spaciousness. As in the opening movement, Salonen calibrated climaxes and ebbs to create fresh balances.

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Golda Schultz (soprano) in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony © Stefan Cohen

The chorus’s hushed sound as they intoned the ‘Resurrection’ theme raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Their work, topped by the radiant, liquid soprano of Golda Schultz, added extra luster. Schultz and DeYoung sounded gorgeous together too.

All the elements played out seamlessly as Salonen’s sure-handed baton carried the music to an appropriately majestic finish. The stately pace contrasted nice with the ever-so-slightly pushed tempos of the first movement.

The opener for the concert was Push, a world premiere of this work by Trevor Weston, who is on the faculty of Drew University in New Jersey and teaches in the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard. A long list of classical music organizations has commissioned his music, from Carnegie Hall to the contemporary music singers Roomful of Teeth. This commission is the first from the Emerging Black Composers Project, a joint effort of San Francisco Conservatory and San Francisco Symphony.

Over four short movements, the 15-minute piece explores a symphonic impression of John Coltrane’s edgier music, intones a quiet elegy to the conductor Michael Morgan (who died earlier this year), features a nocturne and then has a friendly, juicy finale that bounces with glee. The first two movements may have needed a bit more refinement in rehearsal, but the nocturne was delicious. A salute to Copland, ‘City Quiet’ moves along at an anxious pace, quicker that most classical nocturnes but full of atmosphere and space.

I especially liked the finale, ‘Beat Drop’. It was inspired by students who taught him how pop music is constructed by starting with a wandering introduction that leads into the main tune, when the beat ‘drops’. Weston’s music doesn’t sound like pop, but it repeatedly played with a sense of ‘where are we going?’ until settling into a groove. It’s great fun.

Harvey Steiman

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