This week, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present a piece of music very dear to the conductor’s heart - Mahler’s Ninth Symphony - the work with which he began his career with the Symphony in 1974.
Mahler began his Ninth Symphony in the late spring of 1909, finishing the orchestral draft in the fall of the same year. The last score he completed, the Symphony is regarded as one of his greatest symphonic achievements, and one of the greatest achievements of his life. It was, in the words of the late Michael Steinberg, SF Symphony program annotator, “ a work that secured Mahler’s musical immortality”.
The years immediately prior to, and after, the composition of this symphony proved an eventful time in Mahler’s life. In early 1907 he resigned the Artistic Directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, and in June of that year, he signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A month later, he lost his four-year-old daughter to scarlet fever and diphtheria, and within a few days, received disturbing news about the condition of his heart. Nevertheless, he gave concerts throughout Europe, took on the directorship of the New York Philharmonic, and composed Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler died at the age of 50, on May 18, 1911, in Vienna.
His Ninth Symphony was premiered by Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic on June 26, 1912, but it wasn’t performed in North America until 1931, by the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky. The San Francisco Symphony, led by Josef Krips, first played the work in April 1965, and it was most recently performed here in May 2011, with MTT conducting the Symphony.
Michael Tilson Thomas’ passion for the music of Mahler began at a fairly early age. In an interview with Universal Edition, filmed in Munich in July 2009, MTT says he remembers “very clearly the moment when Mahler’s music reached out and grabbed me”. He was 13 years old at the time, and at the home of some friends, waiting for his parents to collect him. Asked whether he’d like to listen to some music while he waited, he agreed, and for the first time in his life, heard the last movement from Das Lied von der Erde.
“I really divide my life between before I heard that recording - which was Ferrier and Walter - and after I heard it,” he said. “The music made a stunning impression on me ... it was as if it gave voice to all kinds of feelings that I have that were part of my part of my family, that were part of the whole connection that my family had to life in small villages in the Ukraine, and the whole kind of presence of Jewish music - both secular and sacred music - in those villages, and the kind of pull of different cultures just went right into my heart ...... I could not believe that such symphonic music existed, and I never got over it.”
MTT first conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the age of 24, “which everyone thought completely crazy, but actually it was the symphony that I think spoke to me the most. Those were the two pieces - Das Lied von der Erde and the [Ninth] Symphony - that for me were the most natural at that point."
You can share MTT’s love of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall from Wednesday, September 18, to Saturday, September 21. For more information and tickets, please visit the San Francisco Symphony website
MTT and the San Francisco Symphony have recorded a CD box set entitled The Mahler Project - a set of recordings which have won a combined 7 Grammy® Awards. Included in the set are:
Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Das klagende Lied
Songs with Orchestra
Das Lied von der Erde
Rückert-Lieder for Piano and Voice
For details, visit the SF Symphony online shop