Magnificent Mahler Partnership Reaches New Heights

Janos Gereben on March 3, 2014
With Mahler's bust: honoring a favorite with brilliant performance
With Mahler's bust: Honoring a favorite with brilliant performance

To their glory, the Sunday matinee performance of Mahler's Third Symphony by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall was not extraordinary.

Superb, majestic, deeply moving — yes, but not out of the ordinary for MTT/SFS. Going on to two decades, this partnership has grown and grown, has reached world fame, and created the constant challenge of playing against the highest expectations.

Even so, the experience of this performance was special. Playing this nearly two-hour-long musical behemoth just hours after the Saturday night concert, the orchestra played magnificently, without a trace of fatigue that would beset top athletes in a similar situation.

A few firsts among equals (there are many more), concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, principal trumpet Mark Inouye (in a concerto-length post-horn solo), and principal trombone Timothy Higgins managed to both stand out and participate seamlessly in the ensemble. The strings — in a European seating of first and second violins on either side of the conductor — and the woodwinds were fabulous, and the brass handled their challenging part with aplomb.

Principal trumpet Mark Inouye
Principal trumpet Mark Inouye

Heroics all around: The women of the SFS Chorus and, especially, some 60 members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, impressed without singing by sitting motionless in front of the audience for an hour and a half before standing up — but then, in just six minutes, their performance swept away the concern with logistics and endurance.

The chorus followed the short but pivotal mezzo aria, "O Mensch! Gib Acht!" (O man, take heed), brilliantly sung by Sasha Cooke, in a kind of grand rehearsal for her role with the orchestra during the European tour beginning next week; the San Franciscans will perform the Third Symphony in London, Paris, and Geneva, among other cities.

From the music director, this was an especially memorable presentation among his many Mahler triumphs. One of the most sprawling of these grand symphonies, the Third ranks high as a work difficult-to-impossible to hold together, to realize its complex and contradictory "message," which ranges from boisterous to lyrical to playful to heartbreaking.

Mezzo Sasha Cooke Photo by Dario Acosta
Mezzo Sasha Cooke
Photo by Dario Acosta

The MTT/SFS partnership did all that and they did it their way. I might have heard bigger and more powerful performances, but probably never one more personal, passionate, and heartfelt. From the huge Introduction, "powerful, determined," through a leisurely, charming Scherzo and the "very slow, mysterioso" movement, then "sprightly and audacious," it all leads to the meandering last movement, which is where MTT put his stamp on the concert.

Mahler specified "very slow, and with great inner feeling throughout," creating a quiet vortex, which comprises all the hesitant yearning and search culminating in the catharsis that's in Parsifal's five hours.

Tilson Thomas' realization of the composer's instructions — final bars be played not with brute strength and the last measure not be cut off sharply — was true throughout the work, and especially in the final movement: There was power, not big sound; deep feeling, not sentimentality.

The matter of time, already mentioned, was especially interesting. Perhaps no other symphony is so elastic in that regard, performances vary widely between 85 and 110 minutes, and there may be extremes at both end that I don't know about.

On Sunday, music alone — without tuning, pauses, applause — ran just over 100 minutes (instead of the 92 minutes noted in the program). That's in the neighborhood of well-known "slow" performances by Bernard Haitink (New York Philharmonic) and Klaus Tennstedt (London Philharmonic). The only time the tempo actually felt a bit slow was not in the last movement — which could not be bettered — after the mezzo aria.