Stirring, poignant Mahler Six from Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony

United StatesUnited States Mahler: San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 31.3.2023. (HS)

Michael Tilson Thomas with violinist Melissa Kleinbart (l) and violist Katie Kadaruch (r). The wooden box is visible top left. © Harvey Steiman

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

Any performance of a Mahler symphony is an event, with a capital E. The San Francisco Symphony’s performances of the composer’s Symphony No.6 took on extra layers of emotion this week with music director laureate Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm. It was an incendiary performance, rigorous in detail, sweeping in its anguish.

Unlike Mahler’s other symphonies, this one arrives at no heroic finish. Its 80-minute journey struggles to overcome dark omens, repeatedly rising to master them with long passages that aim for triumph, only to droop back into the original minor key. It flails at fate, and falls.

San Francisco audiences have experienced this symphony under Tilson Thomas’s baton on several emotionally-charged occasions. Few who were present on 12 September 2001, the night after the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, can forget the catharsis it delivered. By coincidence, this work had already been programmed to record live for the first album in the orchestra’s self-published series of Mahler orchestral works (which won several Grammys along the way).

Then there was the orchestra’s last performance before COVID shut down everything in March 2020. That concert vibrated with omens of the abyss we all faced. In the second of three performances, the symphony again resonated with deeper vibes. Tilson Thomas was diagnosed with a brain tumor 19 months ago, and every appearance is infused with wonder that he still commands the communication and power to execute big works like this. The connection between conductor and musicians, nurtured over 28 years, has never been stronger.

The audience welcomed him with a standing ovation, and a significant number applauded between movements, a rare occurrence at Davies Hall. The swell of appreciation continued at the end; a roar that didn’t dissipate until the conductor took a solo bow after first acknowledging the chief soloists. Ever the conductor, he even turned to the audience to lead them in rhythmic clapping for the band.

Physically, Tilson Thomas may be moving more slowly, his conducting technique significantly less theatrical these days. He mounted the podium carefully and squinted at the audience through blue-rimmed glasses, offering a bemused smile and a tap of his chest to acknowledge the reception. And then the musical results bristled with energy.

The tempo took off at a vigorous pace, the opening march more menacing than funereal. Snare drum rattles, the thrums of the timpani in march time, the interjections of the major chords from the trumpets sinking into minor – all flashed past with vibrant colors. As the grim music yielded to occasional measures of unexpectedly romantic melody, it all flowed resolutely. Details emerged clearly, no matter how raucous and layered the music. Crescendos surged, decrescendos dissipated naturally and subtle changes in tempo felt utterly right, something this conductor has always brought to a performance.

The effect was to drape the first movement with increasing dread. The sardonic Scherzo, a parody of some of the musical tropes in the first that could have come from Shostakovich’s pen decades later, dodged and weaved through its three-beat patterns in a sort of devil’s dance. Throughout it all, the percussionists scattered snare drum ruffles, bass drum rolls and cymbal crashes to accent the proceedings. James Lee Wyatt III added dancing-skeleton tunes on xylophone, and Edward Stephan registered a high level of fierceness on his timpani interruptions.

Even without some of the first-chair through third-chair violinists, including concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, the strings soared effectively under assistant concertmaster Wyatt Underhill. His brief solo in the finale was arresting.

After all that, the Andante third movement, played with all the gentleness and suppleness one could want, gave us a chance to breathe a little easier. The final sprinkling of sweet celesta music was magical, the offstage cowbell registering just enough.

A big wooden box, placed theatrically on a tower that raised it to the level of the balcony surrounding the stage, finally came into play in the finale. The ‘strokes of fate’, delivered theatrically by principal percussionist Jacob Nissly with an outsized wooden hammer, had just the right combination of thud and resonance.

Before all that, Tilson Thomas laid the finale’s groundwork with patience and persistence. The opening measures, their swirling effects creating an eerie mood, led to one of the symphony’s many stunning moments – the return of those major-morphing-to-minor chords from the first movement. It all felt inevitable, especially as the music heaved between sweetness and outright terror as the musical hero repeatedly seemed destined to conquer, only to be swatted down again. The hammer strokes were the biggest and roughest touch, until the very end.

Just when it felt like Mahler was winding down, a swift coda brought the picture into stark focus. The entire orchestra interrupted with that recurring triad, but only the minor version, a vicious gesture that managed to summon all the demons encountered throughout the evening’s journey. This time, there was no going on, and the music ended with a pluck from the strings that somehow felt more resigned than I have ever heard it.

For all of it to have come from Michael Tilson Thomas at this time in his life was unforgettable.

Harvey Steiman

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