Symphony No. 9: To Arrive at the End ... and Know Mahler for the First Time

Janos Gereben on May 7, 2011
MTT leading the SFS
Photo by Bill Swerbenski

Related Article

Fire and Light

Lisa Hirsch reviews S.F. Symphony's Saturday performance of Mahler 2

There is no explanation for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony starting their 10-day celebration of Gustav Mahler with the composer's last symphony, but perhaps none is needed. Each of the nine august works provides its own world, each is "appropriate" for the beginning or the end of a series or any day. The only reason the thought about sequence occurred at all is the fact that the Ninth is a uniquely powerful and magnificent farewell to life,  with the last movement starting and stopping repeatedly, though the music doesn't end so much as disappear, leaving silence and a stunned audience behind.

It happens every time, the audience response of silence before applause erupts, especially if it's a good performance. On Friday, it wasn't just a good performance, the MTT/SFS Mahler Machine provided a superb, deeply moving experience. The pause before the standing ovation lasted only 10 seconds, it should have been longer, but otherwise audience behavior was so exemplary, they can be pardoned for sacrificing quiet awe for noisy celebration.

Coming from an other era, not all that long ago, when Mahler was in no way part of the musical hit parade; these days, each time I see a full hall for Mahler, and people who stay to the end, I am surprised ... and gratified.

Davies Symphony Hall was full, listeners stayed, celebrated, and despite braving an icy wind unusual even for Arctic San Francisco summer days, were silent during even the 32-minute first movement, holding (for the most part) their coughs for the breaks. Bravo and thank you: Few symphonies are jeopardized so much by audience noise as the Ninth.

Poor Mahler! San Francisco's (and the world's) celebration of his music comes on the centenary of his death. He was only 50 — just imagine what he might have written if he lived a few more years?! And poor Mahler because he never had a chance to hear the Ninth. He completed it in 1910, and the first performance (in Vienna) came in 1912, a year after the composer's death.

On Friday, during an evening of many glories and few negatives, perhaps the greatest accomplishment was in the rock-solid certainty of that huge, complex opening Andante, layers of sound washing over the hall, tension-release over and over again, the main theme by the second violins sending shivers up the spine, some 60 strings playing as one, the brass amazing. How could this music ever not be on the top of every music lover's wish list?

After three previous Mahler festivals, recording most everything Mahler wrote, spreading his fame through the wonderful Keeping Score series, MTT and the orchestra have been breathing Mahler for a long time now, and that's obvious in the sound they produce, but — a very big but — nothing is taken for granted.

After he first movement's gigantic struggle "between tonal stability and instability," feeling both exhilarated and exhausted, the musicians are faced with the task of a complete change, first with the good-natured Landler, then with the savage urgency of the Rondo burlesque. And then the heartbreaking Adagio returns, taking music, musicians, and listeners to the higher plateau of the first movement.

Mark Inouye

Through it all — with the exception of a few minutes of insufficient impact from the strings at the beginning of the third movement — conductor and orchestra met every challenge thrown at them, and made it all sound easy. There were gossamer passages, even in the initially troubled third movement, I don't remember hearing in some of the most acclaimed live performances or recordings. That's both the accomplishment of performers and the magic of Mahler, who can surprise even on the umpteenth hearing.

First-chair solos gave remarkable performances, especially concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, principal viola Jonathan Vinocour, first-chair cello Peter Wyrick (superb in the last movement), principal flute Tim Day, the horns, and principal trumpet Mark Inouye, who played all the right notes, but added something to the music I cannot name or define — something special and exciting.

And so, on to Mahler No. 2 this Saturday and Sunday; Mahler No. 6 on May 12-14. On Mothers Day, it's a matinee, so the orchestra — after playing Symphony No. 9 Thursday and Friday — the SFS will perform the humongous Resurrection Symphony twice in 16 hours. Then three nights of No. 6. Then off for a long European tour, playing Mahler. No ordinary humans, these San Franciscans.