Those days when Mahler didn't pack concert halls are within the lifetime
of us, ahem, veteran music fans. He sure does today, especially when
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are on stage. The
MTT-SFS-Mahler partnership in this city is such a money-in-the-bank draw
that the conductor feels it safe to reprise symphonies from season to
season, and include in tonight's program a couple of "difficult" 20th
century rarities... perhaps to see if that would thin out the ranks
of Davies Hall.
Nope, the house was full, and not even Carl Ruggles and Morton Feldman
combined would keep the crowd away from the Mahler Symphony No. 5, not
even in its third run since 1998, combined attendance reaching well above
40,000 just for this work, and if you figure all San Francisco Mahler
The two "new" and unusual works turned out to be pleasant miniatures,
brief, atmospheric, enjoyable. Ruggles' 1922 "Angels" for muted brass
is a sonorous chorale, an extended breath of Om - serenity exemplified.
Feldman's 1971 "I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg" is a similarly
mild-mannered, quiet, traditionally-harmonic "song" for an ususual septet
that includes a soprano, singing wordlessly, blending her voice with the
flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin, cello and even the percussion.
The chamber-music group, conducted by MTT, gave an flawless ensemble
performance, with a spectacular - if selfless - participation by Elza
van den Heever. The young soprano (see http://tinyurl.com/9c5mu) is an
exceptional talent, and her SFS debut just reconfirmed previous impressions
of her. As to the title, it has nothing to do with the music the listener
could figure out. If you need some background information on that, see
However much Mahler MTT performed before (in London, with his New World
Symphony, elsewhere) before coming to San Francisco in 1995, his 1998
Fifth Symphony with SFS was a memorable experience, only confirmed during
2004 performances, and yet again tonight. All the Mahler symphonies of
this partnership are fine, especially the Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and
Ninth for this listener, but No. 5 is truly special.
Once again vital, exciting, all-of-one-piece, it was a self-confident,
straightforward, honest reading, tinged with grandeur, clearly articulated,
with sweeping climaxes, smooth transitions, passages of short-lived calm,
both convincing and indicative of the layers of subtext underneath the
Following the opening trumpet call, MTT held back the orchestra response
almost imperceptibly, making the slightly delayed and well-controlled
explosion that followed all the more effective. The last note of the
first movement drifted into silence, uncannily.
When the score asked for "grosster Vehemenz," the music's fury was all
there, but in its power, not loudness. What Henry-Louis de La Grange
once called the essential part of Mahler's greatness - "his provocations,
his excesses and paradoxes" - become "understandable," and no longer
provocative or excessive in a performance such as this. The ghostly
Scherzo danced with eerie restraint and just a hint of menace; the
principal strings' pizzicato passages impressed with their precision and
The Adagietto was astonishing. The music appeared motionless and yet
it swept the listener along. The Finale, which often appears "problematic,"
made a sort of "sense" here. Over and over again, what has become "the
San Francisco Mahler" in the past decade is a reliably grand experience.
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