Hobson Closes Brahms Cycle at DiMenna Center
Preview: Ear Heart Music Ensemble with Sydney Skybetter & Associates

San Francisco Symphony Adds New Dimensions to Mahler at Carnegie Hall

by Michael Cirigliano II

San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas, Carnegie Hall

Photo credit: Eric Thayer, NPR

I will be the first to admit that I was incredibly critical of the strike the San Francisco Symphony musicians commenced shortly before their East Coast tour back in March. Not only did I think this was a horrible precedent to set for musicians of the Top Five orchestras, but on a musical level (the most important level to an audience member) it robbed Carnegie Hall of a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by a conductor and ensemble that have set a new standard for the composer's symphonic cycle.

The only way to rectify this situation was for these forces to return to Carnegie Hall with the same program, and thankfully they did just that on Thursday night. After an varied program of Beethoven, Mozart, Steve Mackey, and Copland the evening before, it must have felt like a relief to the musicians to devote the program to a piece they've become synonymous with. Although there were moments of clear fatigue from the players, what Tilson Thomas and the orchestra presented blissfully alternated between radiant and harrowing—the exact moods the Ninth needs to convey.

After some dodgy intonation from the horns and harps in the opening bars of the piece—the famous moment of instable rhythm mimicking Mahler’s failing heart—the string body entered, creating a dark and burnished sound that one associates with European, and not American, orchestras. Carnegie Hall is wonderful in that it gives its patrons a kaleidoscopic review of the world's famous orchestras, allowing those to see that while the New York Philharmonic is only a couple of blocks away, week after week, their strident string sound is not the norm.

Throughout the evening, the San Franciscans displayed a musical maturity that fit the autumnal nature of the work; their sense of pacing was one with Tilson Thomas, and every sense of dynamic gradation propelled the piece into exciting new territory. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the first movement's climax—the moment Alban Berg referred to as the appearance of Death himself. Usually orchestras have hit every previous arrival point with such fanfare and punch that when they truly arrive at this moment of collapse, it hardly makes an impact. Not so here: The low brass roared their hellish reminder of the "failing heart" rhythm heard in the opening bar, while timpanist David Herbert transformed the harp's opening motive into a chilling death march, eventually taken over by the double basses who ferociously snapped their strings in defiance.

Tilson Thomas framed the middle movements well, with a heavy-handed Austrian ländler dance that, while slower than usual, allowed the strings to really dig in and create a rustic feel, as well as a virutosic "Rondo-Burleske" that communicated a pristine sense of rhythmic clarity to the otherwise complex counterpoint. The winds screamed and the brass sneered with incredible conviction, heightening the comic effects that are usually never accentuated enough.

With the final "Adagio," it was again the strings' turn to take over, crafting a 25-minute string of melody and sound that was of profound depth. The key to Tilson Thomas' interpretation is his ability to push and pull the music's pacing at just the right moments—suspending resolutions until their absolute breaking point. The symphony's final moments paid off greatly because of this, and the decay of both melody and volume were well nuanced. The strings continually found new levels of quiet to explore, their gentle bowing merging with the ghostly hush of the hall, and as the violas sang their final melodic fragment—turning the main motive's shape from descent into ascent—it was not victorious, but rightfully peaceful and resigned.