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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Concert Review: California's Dark

MTT and the San Francisco Symphony return with Mahler's Seventh.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mahler groove: conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
Photo © 2014 San Francisco Symphony.
When Gustav Mahler premiered his Symphony No. 7 in E minor in 1906, he set a series of problems and riddles that too often, baffle today's conductors, listeners and critics. On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Symphony returned to Carnegie Hall to play this difficult and uniquely weird five-movement work, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Thanks to an 11th-hour orchestra strike in March of 2013 that caused a planned set of Carnegie Hall appearances to be cancelled, it's been more than two years since New Yorkers have heard the San Francisco Symphony. For this performance, the first of a two-night stand, they were tight and focused, taking time before the house opened to rehearse key passages of this difficult score. And those rehearsals paid off: the Mahler Seventh features tempo changes and unusual instructions that can bedevil even the most hardened conductor.

This is the last of Mahler's three "middle" instrumental symphonies, and the least popular and performed of the whole cycle. The general preconception of the Seventh is that its five movements divide unevenly. The first four movement encompass the shadowy world of night in the Austrian countryside, with the final movement, a blazing Rondo, shining daylight on the proceedings in a series of brash and unwelcoming brass chords derived from Wagner's Meistersinger. Commentators in the last century have been particularly hard on this last movement, with separate commentators referring to it as "tiresome", and"unloved."

Closer examination reveals that Mahler may have known what he was doing. It can be argued that the Seventh may be ternary, with the two big outer movements balancing each other as giant-sized pictures of Night and Day. The three center movements: two Nachtmusiks (No. 2 a march, No. 4 a serenade) and a profoundly weird Scherzo (No, 3, marked Schattenhaft or "shadowlike") forming a massive A-B-A form in the middle, a giant triptych that separates the outer movements.

Mr. Tilson Thomas led a performance that was crisp in execution and rich in orchestral detail. The principal horn overcame a rocky entrance to lead the charge through the opening movement, with conductor and orchestra executing the sharp turns on Mahler's steep upward path. The big solo before the coda (source of the theme for a particular long-running science fiction show) floated over a magic carpet of strings, flutes and glockenspiel, before the whole movement came thundering to its end.

Twittering bird-songs and a mysterious downward slide into a minor key open the first Nachtmusik. The mysterious march started, led off by the double basses and picked up by the rest of the huge orchestra, creating a mysterious journey through a strange landscape with only the illumination of starlight. This idyllic landscape gave way to the dark dream of the Schattenhaft movement, with its grinning skull-like oboe figures and the strings playing a wicked parody of the waltzes that so entranced the populace of  Mahler's Vienna.

Problems of pacing slowed up the second Nachtmusik, Mahler's portrait of love on a summer night. This movement opened with a lovely, evocative solo from the concertmaster, and the entry of two unusual instruments: guitar and mandolin. Although the little triple concerto for these instruments is quite beautiful, the movement creates genuine balance problems for even the most gifted conductor. Mr. Tilson Thomas lingered in this dreamlike state, before breaking the spell with another slow crescendo in the brass section. The movement ended with another visit to the Mahlerian aviary, embodied by the expanded woodwinds.

The final movement was thunderous and big-shouldered, anchored by rock-solid brass playing and a series of crushing blows from the percussion section. A ringing fanfare (the Die Meistersinger reference) creates the image of a sun-drenched town square, with the orchestra depicting the bustling activities of the populace at work and play. Stomping, sped-up peasant dances jostle for room with references to the past four movements, played in reverse order--like a sleeper awakening from a long dream. As the opening theme of the symphony sounded in the trumpets, it struggled against the clamor of bells, Mr. Tilson Thomas brought the celebration back to the work's finish to a clashing, clattering and jubilant end.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.