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Multilayered Mahler

June 12, 2007

On Thursday night at Davies Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony took a huge and potentially unwieldy work, Mahler's Symphony No. 7, and graced it with a heady and absorbing performance. Tilson Thomas’s interpretation wove together thoughtful pacing, a keen sense of the music’s multilayered foreground and background, an unerring sense of line, and an emotional and architectural understanding of the work to move the music continually forward.
The authority and electricity of the performance were clear from the opening notes, with the strings a little more forceful and grumbling than expected, the following brass and wind lines a bit more bustling, and the march theme clearing the air and propelling the music ahead. Through much of the movement, the real excitement came not from the themes but from the many darting transitions, which make the richer melodic material that emerges in the later movements all the more compelling. Mahler himself described this mercurial movement as a foundation for the entire work, and the performance responded to the imperative, tracing a carefully sculpted, expressive arc that compacted the work's multitude of moods and the buildup that occurs through the four movements that follow.

The second movement, the first of the two Nachtmusik sections that frame the central Scherzo, was a marvel of clarity and balance within the orchestra. Tilson Thomas has a clear understanding of Mahler's orchestral thinking, one in which the composer's imagination for tone color and his contrapuntal approach to development are essentially one and the same. The roots of the Second Viennese School's extension of these concepts felt present in this strange, dreamy music, and the piece seemed to grow more modern and more personal all at once.

The playing reached deeply into every mood Mahler put into this work — the grotesquerie of the Scherzo, the sweetness and fleeting moods of the second Nachtmusik, and the driving invention and joy of the Finale. The length and expansiveness of Mahler's Seventh can be a bit much to absorb, but there was a sense of rightness about every tempo. The ever-thickening textures remained clear to the end, and the enormous amount of thought and care that had clearly gone into this interpretation was deeply rewarding.

Solo lines drive much of the work, and the orchestra's first chairs were uniformly excellent there. Principal horn Robert Ward, whose role is spotlighted from the beginning of the symphony, was a model soloist — powerful without any bombast and capturing the work's quality of exploration with wonderfully expressive playing. Among many standout players, bassoonist Stephen Paulson highlighted the Scherzo and timpanist David Herbert was thrilling in the Finale.

The program began with a surprising contrast to the enormous scope of the Mahler, Mozart's Sonata in E Minor, K.304, for violin and piano. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik joined Tilson Thomas at the keyboard for a performance that captured the drama and intimacy present in this brief work. Barantschik's affecting playing was well-matched by the conductor, who, despite an occasional tendency to overbalance his partner, remains a fluent and expressive player.

Benjamin Frandzel has written on music and the arts for a wide range of publications. He has a background as a guitarist and composer, and has collaborated with dance, theater, and visual artists.