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Mahler continues to thrive under MTT and the San Francisco Symphony

1901 caricature drawings of Gustav Mahler's conducting style
by Hans Schliessmann, from Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in the first of three performances of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony. Once again, MTT presented Mahler to his San Francisco audience in the form of a tour preview concert. Last November he took Mahler’s ninth to both Carnegie Hall and Hill Auditorium in in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and next month the third will be performed in London, Paris, Geneva, Luxembourg, and Vienna. Mezzo Sasha Cooke, who will join SFS as the vocal soloist, also performed last night along with the women of the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) and the San Francisco Girls Chorus (Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Music Director). During the tour, each city will provide is own choral resources.

Mahler began this symphony in the summer of 1895, but it was not completed until May of 1899. He had planned it as an even more massive undertaking than his second (“Resurrection”) symphony, his first “choral” symphony. Indeed, his design was so grand that he eventually decided to delete his final movement, which would later resurface as the final movement of his fourth symphony. If the opening funeral march movement of the second took the basic architecture of sonata form and stretched it out over twenty minutes, the opening of the third continued that march rhetoric, shattered it into a more fragmented discourse, and added about another ten minutes to the duration.

If the second symphony was “about” death and resurrection, the third was conceived around different perspectives of man in the natural world. That opening movement was originally given a title:

Pan Awakes. Summer Comes Marching In.

One might think that this would provide a sunnier contrast to the dark shadows of the second symphony’s funeral march. One might even have anticipated the selection of Pan as a sign of cheerful ribaldry.

One would have been entirely wrong. For Mahler the “place” of man in the natural world was that of an insignificant speck in the face of overwhelming forces. Summer’s march sounds more like the invading troops of a hostile army; and Pan himself leads that army, not by virtue of his libertine character but because his name constitutes the root of the noun “panic.” The result is an episodic playing out of visions even more frightening than those of the second symphony’s funeral march.

This single movement is practically a symphony unto itself; and MTT approached it with just the right sense of pacing to escort the listener through its half-hour nightmare. Most important is that this single movement may have the widest dynamic range of any of Mahler’s compositions, and MTT knew exactly how do unfold the full scope of that range to the listener. Thus, the opening measures assert themselves with the full force of the horn section sounding a martial theme with “military-style” reinforcement from the drums; but this drops the listener off a cliff into an abyss in which the only sound comes from the lightest possible taps on the head of the bass drum. (For Gioacchino Rossini, the bass drum could always be counted on to play the clown. In Mahler’s music, between its lack of pitch and its almost featureless harmonic spectrum, it is inevitably the Angel of Death.)

Another way to approach this movement is as a conflict between the strict orderliness of a martial procession and the abandoned chaos that Pan brings to the scene. One may thus say that Pan is the agent behind the thwarting of every theme to express itself through prolonged statement. Just as a theme begins to establish itself, Mahler cuts it off abruptly. Chaos ultimately rules when the rhythmic regularity of the march deteriorates in the bridge leading to the recapitulation of the opening theme, a recapitulation in which the march recovers from the dust-up and tries to advance once more with business-as-usual discipline (but, in the grand scheme of the movement, with no more success).

The epic of this opening movement is then followed by a series of much shorter movements, each originally given its own thematic title:

  • What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
  • What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
  • What Humanity Tells Me
  • What the Angels Tell Me

The first two and the last are ternary form movements in which the outer section expressed the optimism of innocence, only to be confronted in the middle section by some aspect of the darker side of experience. (To be fair to that play on words, William Blake never shows up in Henri-Louis de La Grange’s major biographical effort to account for Mahler’s influences during his formative years.) The third movement in this set has the mezzo offering a vocal setting of a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (thus spoke Zarathustra); and this is dark from beginning to end. She also provides the dark middle section of the following movement contrasting with the “angelic” sounds of the choral voices.

The symphony then concludes with another extended movement (this time on the order of twenty minutes). The title planned for this movement was “What Love Tells Me.” As in the second symphony, this provides a conclusion in the blazing sunlight of optimism. Unlike the second, however, it comes to this conclusion from one of Mahler’s quietest beginnings, unfolding as a series of gradual crescendo structures, each of which ascends to a successively greater height.

Here, again, the attentive listener could appreciate MTT’s control of dynamic resources over the long haul. The overall rhetoric is one of meditation. However, it is meditation that leads to enlightenment; and through MTT’s interpretation, one could savor every aspect of the emergence of that enlightenment.

The result was the undertaking of a major journey. The program book stated that the performance would last a bit more than ninety minutes. As it was conducted last night, it came closer to a little less than two hours. However, MTT shaped that journey in such a way that, even with Mahler’s calculated rhetorical setbacks, one always had a sense of moving forward. That metaphorical view of this symphony as a path to enlightenment registered with intense clarity last night, as if the structure of that path had established just the right meeting-ground between what Mahler had composed and what MTT chose to perform.

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