Except for the masks worn onstage and in the house, the San Francisco Symphony’s Thursday, Jan. 27, concert felt like 2018 all over again. Back on the Davies Hall podium, for the second week in row, was former music director (now music director laureate) Michael Tilson Thomas. The program, too, stirred memories of triumphs past.
The sensational pianist Yuja Wang, who has wowed local audiences since her 2006 debut here, would open as soloist in Liszt’s tempestuous Piano Concerto No. 1. Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, an MTT staple during his 25 years as leader of the ensemble, filled the longer second portion of the evening. Signaling their approval and anticipation of the bill, a crowd substantially larger than that for the previous Thursday’s concert turned out.
They got what many of them came for — a night of pyrotechnics and finesse, familiar music and superlative performances. In the Mahler they also got something more. Laid out in four striving and at times uncertain movements, the symphony had a deep emotional resonance, a sense of the precarious and the precious, of quests and regrets, struggle and perseverance.
First came the fireworks display. Yuja was dressed, as she typically does, to deliver sparks before she’s played a note. Thursday’s floor-length gown, shark-skin spangles with a plunging neckline, did the job. MTT gave her a playful hip bump before they got down to business.
With her first thunderstorm of double-octave chords, Yuja affirmed one of her signature assets. No one, in this listener’s experience, can generate the roof-raising power from a Steinway that she does. It’s at once thrilling and a little alarming to witness. There’s something almost tectonic at work.
But even at her mightiest triple fortissimos, Yuja didn’t simply summon volume from the instrument. Her big sounds had depth, clarity, and purpose. Every note in Liszt’s arsenal of dense chords came through.
And when the storm clouds parted, the soloist’s touch turned playful and feathery. Runs skipped and capered as if on air. Trills in the high treble were so swift and steady they brought a hovering hummingbird to mind. Oscillating chords clattered and shimmered by turns. It was hard not to grin at the sheer, seemingly effortless prowess of it all.
It’s easy to imagine a conductor staying out of the way and letting the pianist, relatively speaking, take over. Yuja is too fine a musician, and her rapport with MTT and the band too well developed, for any of that to happen. Time again, as she partnered with a clarinet one moment, a violin the next, and later on, in a zany back-and-forth with a triangle, the exchanges were sensitive and alert. Orchestra and soloist took some delicious rubatos together, as well as several breathless wind sprints, always in perfect sync with each other and with Liszt’s demanding, delight-filled score.
The Mahler One that MTT and the orchestra offered was anything but a polished recitation of previous performances. Right away, from the first movement’s tremulous opening and fitful utterances from a horn here, a clarinet there, a sense of effortful exploration, of things at stake, took hold. With the violin sections positioned on opposite sides of the podium, fresh, nearly antiphonal effects brushed on a brighter-than-normal sound. Meanwhile the bass drum sounded an ominous alarm. As if in response, the movement took on a fateful cast, as if to depict the uncertain narrative of Mahler’s “Wayfarer Song” quotation.
The Scherzo featured high contrasts, with its thudding raw outer sections and swoony middle interlude. The famous funereal movement followed, with its shadowy Frère Jaques round played with eerie solemnity, first pierced by the oboe’s knife-like interjection. Tempos seemed to wobble in fun-house mirror fashion, yet another haunting effect.
The final movement was a terror thrill ride and catharsis, led by the blazing brass and horn sections. The wood winds argued sweetly at times, pungently at others. The strings gleamed and glowered. The final measures were almost recklessly exultant, the horns standing for their final charge.
Not all of this was scrupulously done or well disciplined. It might not have been the performance many expected or even liked for some stretches. But the sense of danger and the possibility was palpable and memorable. MTT and the orchestra demonstrated once again what they had so many times in the past with this composer. No matter what you think you know or feel, listen again. Listen to this. Mahler contains multitudes.