Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

When MTT's S.F. Symphony Meets Mahler, Sparks Fly

Review of the San Francisco Symphony Performance of September 28, 2005 in the Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group, September 30, 2005, under the headline above.

By Cheryl North

THE RELATIONSHIP between San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas with the music of Gustav Mahler is much like the relationship between flint and steel. When the two get together, things heat up and sparks fly. It's happened before and it happened again when MTT stepped in front of the massed army of San Francisco Symphony musicians on Davies Symphony Hall's stage Wednesday evening in San Francisco.

The concert, highlighted by Mahler's milestone Symphony No. 5, was the first of four performances this week from which live-recorded materials will be assembled into a CD to be issued sometime next year as part of the Symphony's ongoing Mahler recording project.

Two brief, but fascinating American works, like slightly astringent aperitifs, began the concert apparently chosen to complement the major feast to come. The first was Charles Ruggles' comely Angels, interestingly scored for four muted trumpets and four muted trombones. Described by the maestro in his introductory remarks as a mystical "meditation on a New England-style hymn," the piece, composed in 1920, was gentle, precise and pristine in character.

Morton Feldman's quirkily named I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg came next. Described by MTT as made up of small motifs to resemble a sort of "musical mobile" (think Calder, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg and company) the seven-member ensemble of instruments included South African soprano Elza van den Heever sitting behind a music stand in their midst. She used her lovely pure voice just like another musical instrument as she intoned oh, ah, and oo vowels into the texture of the piece. The result was a haunting series of shimmery sonic flashes not unlike a mobile moving in the air.

Then, following intermission, came the monumental Mahler feast. Audience members were greeted by a stage almost overflowing with instruments and musicians. It made me think of a massive banquet table laden with an extravagant main course.

The piece immediately commanded attention with its initial signature trumpet summons, performed with portentous weight and fervor by the symphony's acting principal trumpet William M. Williams Jr. His assertive playing pointed up its rhythmic and perhaps even psychological, relationship to the motif beginning Beethoven's Fifth.

This was followed by the dirge-like march which MTT punctuated with strong, but somber accents. The string section imbued the poignant second theme with an uncanny sweetness that sounded like one grand, sublime instrument. Violas supplied tender sighs in accompaniment. This ineffable tenderness made for a rivetingly sharp contrast when MTT finally unleashed the fury of the full orchestra into a dense labyrinth of polyphonic textures made even more dramatic when pierced by warning-like reminders from the trumpet.

The brass, particularly the horns led by Robert Ward, covered themselves with glory as they sang out the grand, major key chorale of the Scherzo movement. MTT then shaped it and the various themes following into an ebullient, almost peasant-like, mood. String principals made some musical magic with their gentle pizzicato comments before this musical innocence was transmuted into a parody-like passage when joined by the larger body of instruments.

The gorgeous, and now, quite familiar "Adagietto" movement under MTT's hand was nothing short of exquisite. Rather than treating its sublime, long- breathed phrases as a sort of lull between two mighty storms, he transformed the movement into something supercharged. Although whispery quiet and very slow, there was never a respite in the tension. The string players were intensely concentrated with their eyes focused on their conductor as though their very lives depended on catching his subtlest nuance. This concentration was maintained right up until the last wisp of sound seemed to evaporate into thin air.

If the first four movements rated a 10 on a scale of 10, the final movement fell short. Its breakneck tempo seemed to be so tightly telescoped that much detail that could otherwise have built tension and anticipation towards a more effective, satisfying finale, was diffused. Hopefully, upcoming performances will correct this and bring a less-than-10 up to a 10 to match the preceding movements.

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