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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Concert Review: From Ten to One

The San Francisco Symphony encapsulates Mahler's career.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Busted: Michael Tilson Thomas (right) with Rodin's bust of Gustav Mahler.
Photo taken in the Musikverein, Vienna © San Francisco Symphony
When Gustav Mahler died in 1911, he was working on the Symphony No. 10. He had completed sketches of its five movements, and the orchestration of the opening Adagio. On Saturday night, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony paired that movement with the composer's Symphony No. 1, offering a fascinating look at the end and beginning of a composer's legend.

Conductors today are of two minds when it comes to the Tenth. Some opt for a completed five-movement version, usually choosing the one completed by musicologist Deryck Cooke in 1964 and authorized by the composer's widow. Mr. Thomas, like his mentor Leonard Bernstein prefers the single stand-alone movement. Here, the conductor treated this Adagio as the centerpiece of the evening, even offering a few words to the audience to prepare them for this slow, otherworldly journey through Mahler's last musical achievement.

The song started imperceptibly, led by controlled and measured violas playing in slow unison. The rest of the strings entered and the great, swelling wave rolled forward, led and cued carefully by Mr. Thomas. A profound sense of stillness, calm and even joy emerged, picking up from the death-throes of the Ninth and showing what (for Mahler) might lay in the celestial realm. This was not the earthy Heaven of the Fourth but something even more profound.

The great wave rose and rose, swelling to a series of climaxes with the brass chorale entering like the chords of an angry church organ. This climaxed in a high trumpet pedal, the veil being pierced and a glimpse of the beyond offered in its fearful power. Thanks to the efforts of Cooke and other efforts to complete the work, listeners have a coherent idea of what Mahler was trying to achieve in the whole symphony, but here, this single movement was more than enough.

The First brought the orchestra and the listener back to terra firma. This sprawling work was Mahler's first attempt to describe the surrounding world in purely instrumental terms, shot through with quotes from three of his Wunderhorn songs and referencing the children's song "Frére Jacques" and a theme from the Engelbert Humperdinck opera Hansel und Gretel. Its premiere was met with puzzlement and even hostility, but it stands today as one of Mahler's most popular and accessible symphonies.

The famous slow dawn started, with shimmering intervals interrupted by far-off trumpet calls and the songs of chirping birds. The clarinet made the two-note call of the cuckoo. Eventually, the cellos took up the first song theme, leading the way forward in a merry dance as the orchestra bloomed into vivid life. Mr. Thomas brought the whole to a series of surging climaxes, with the brass and percussion shouting for joy, a thrilling effect. The dance movement that followed was similarly effective, its clod-hopping Ländler rhythm having a certain rustic elegance.

If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it's nothing on the rest of this symphony. The funeral march (that provoked all the listeners at this work's premiere) transforms the "Frére Jacques" theme into a minor dirge, which somehow reforms itself into a klezmer band on holiday and then quotes another Wunderhorn theme. The jarring finale, a pair of twisting storms for brass, strings and percussion, raged to its climax, subsided and went back to the dawn theme before restating itself with even more vehemence. It was in the valley between these two peaks of sound that Mr. Thomas showed attention to detail, expressing some of Mahler's most poetic writing that is too often lost amidst the clatter and clash.

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