Intemperate Mahler from temperate San Francisco

San Francisco might seem like an unlikely place for a Mahler tradition to take root. Mahler’s epic, heaven shaking symphonies don’t exactly match up seamlessly with the casual atmosphere of the Bay Area, its progressive politics, and foggy, clement summer days. But, that is exactly what has happened in San Francisco since Michael Tilson Thomas stepped onto the podium as the orchestra’s music director in 1995.

Before MTT joined the orchestra, the SFS was already known as one of the West Coast’s innovative orchestras. Former music director Edo de Waart advocated the music of American minimalists and Herbert Blomstedt followed up De Waart’s successes with electric performances of non-standard repertory by Hindemith, Wourinen, and Nielsen.

In his time with the orchestra, MTT has continued in this tradition. He and the orchestra examined the musical output of familiar, but occassionally glossed over composers, like Stravinsky and Copland. Through the orchestra’s innovative Keeping Score television and DVD series, MTT walks the musically curious through, among others, Hector Berlioz’s loopy Symphonie Fantastique and Charles Ives’s clanging Holiday Symphony. But these laudable accomplishments are expected.

The SFS’s notoriety as a Mahler orchestra began recently and in earnest in 2001 after the United States had its collective psyche leveled by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One day after the attacks, the SFS conquered the Sixth Symphony – a death and doom obsessed masterpiece perfect for that anxious, historic moment – in a series of performances.  The Sixth was recorded and released on disk in 2002.  Anyone who has heard the recording can attest to the thundering opening march and the fierce hammer blows — the most chilling ever commited to disk —  in the final movement. The release started the SFS’s Mahler series and netted the band a Grammy Award in 2002. Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and the first movement from the Tenth close out the symphony cycle with the orchestral songs to follow.

Even as the work of recording Mahler’s symphonies is over, MTT is pushing ahead with the orchestra’s Mahler tradition. This season, the orchestra began with a Mahler festival that included concert recording of the Ruckert Lieder sung by Susan Grahmn the Songs of a Wayfarer by Thomas Hampson.

On an October 3rd stop in San Francisco, I experienced the SFS in their permanent home, Davies Hall. I heard the orchestra play live for the first time earlier this year in a swaying, confident rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the second of two concerts at Benaroya Hall. On the Davies Hall program, MTT paired Mahler’s popular Fifth Symphony with a lesser known and rarely performed piece – Hymnos – by the Italian Avant Garde composer Giacinto Scelsi.

The gauzy, placid, Hymnos contrasted with the Mahler’s towering symphony. Spreading, introspective music describe Hymnos best. On the other hand, the Fifth begins with trudging, fate ladened music which stirs and frightens the soul at the same time. The horns incisively declared the fate theme heard throughout the first movement. Later, in the adagio, MTT and the orchestra glanced back to Hymnos fusing delicate textures with elegant playing that brought a few people sitting near me to tears. The concluding finale, wrapped up the entire experience triumphantly and without even a hint of the dark places Mahler would go in the Sixth Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony concluded the Mahler festival that began in September, but it didn’t conclude the MTT and the SFS’s exploration of Mahler’s music. In the short run, the Second Symphony (Resurrection) returns to Davies Hall later in the seasons and we can certainly expect more Mahler recordings to hit store shelves soon. Riveting Mahler performances and additional polished recordings are surely in the SFS’s long-term future as well. Classical music lovers expect these types of projects from leading Mahler orchestras, even if they emerge from the most unlikely places.

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