Mahler 1 and 10 with SFS

April 01 2017

We took in our last San Francisco Symphony concert of the season tonight on April Fool’s Day. This was a completely serious affair though, with Mahler’s Adagio from the 10th symphony and the 1st symphony. In the end, I’m left only with the affirmation that Mahler is my favorite composer and an inspiration. And I now think that the SFS is the absolute best Mahler orchestra in the US.

Michael Tilson Thomas started the evening with a story about leaving our busy lives and concentrating on something new. He described the music of Mahler’s 10th Symphony as something out of this world. He also read out loud a short, simple poem (I cannot remember the author’s name unfortunately). The point was to set the mood for the audience, and it really worked.

Mahler’s 10th is an absolute treasure. SFS only played the first movement Adagio, which was the only movement close to completion by Mahler’s death. It is quite possibly his most personal symphony, the one he was working on when he was struggling with his younger wife possibly leaving him. It takes the lyricism and placid beauty of his last two works (Song of the Earth and the 9th Symphony) and adds in an element of his mood swings, particularly with the anguished cries near the end of the movement.

I’ve been critical of the SFS before but they were wonderful tonight. Everyone was locked in, and the result was a cohesive and grand experience. The violas kicked off the 10th brilliantly with the melancholy and haunting melody line. When the rest of the orchestra came in, it was amazing to hear how warm and passionate the sound was despite being very soft. The violins in particular did an excellent job at this.

This was my first time hearing the 10th live in performance, but I’ve heard the 1st a few times before. In fact, I played the symphony as a section first violin with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra. That concert is stil the only Mahler performance I’ve every participated in, and it’s one of my five proudest accomplishments as a musician.

The 1st symphony is Mahler’s simplest and most accessible symphony. In some ways, it might be the perfect live performance symphony. It has everything - beautiful melodies, a heroic ending, joyous dances, a funeral march, gypsy music, nature sounds, and even a slight hint of modern 20th century dissonance. It truly is an entire world in a 60-minute performance.

SFS were fantastic here as well. There were a some slight hiccups: in the second movement, there are a couple times where the tempo accelerates greatly, even violently. In those places, the SFS were a little chaotic and didn’t maintain control.

But overall, this was a showpiece for the orchestra. The violins got an opportunity to really mash, with the huge volume of fast notes they get in the first, second, and last movements. The brass got to show off at the end (and one of my favorite Mahlerisms is asking the horns to stand up). All the strings got to show off their penchant for the Mahler portamento slide (and I think no orchestra I’ve ever seen seems to enjoy the slide as much as this one does).

The solo performances were great as well. The principal bassist dutifully played the moribund Frere Jacques solo to start the third movement. I loved seeing his section mates silently applaud him at the end of it by shuffling their hands on their pants.

Which comes to my conclusion. I think the SFS is currently the best Mahler orchestra in the US (you’d have to argue that at least Vienna and the Concertgebouw, and maybe even Berlin, are better Mahler orchestras worldwide). And MTT is unquestionably the best American Mahler conductor going right now.

It’s so interesting that this orchestra is not always consistent and drives me crazy when playing a Beethoven symphony. But I think the musicians really do get up for a concert like this, where MTT is leading and the audience is ready to hear something that is a little foreign to them (particularly the 10th symphony Adagio).


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