Monday, September 21, 2009

Mahler Mania at the San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony usually put on a thematic two-or-three-week festival at the end of each season around June, but this year the festival is opening the season instead with three weeks of Mahler.

The orchestra has already recorded all nine symphonies and "Das Lied von Erde," but have decided to chug ahead and be completist with recordings of Mahler's song cycles with orchestra, including last week's "Ruckert Lieder" sung by the American mezzo soprano Susan Graham (below right).

After the five short German songs, the orchestra played Mahler's wildly eccentric First Symphony, written in 1889 and then extensively revised for the next 20 years while keeping the original weirdness.

The local reviews for the concert were all over the map: disparaging (Joshua Kosman), glowing (Georgia Rowe), and ambivalent (Patrick Vaz). I have heard both so-so and great Mahler performances by MTT and this orchestra over the years, and really wasn't sure which one would be showing up, so it was a happy relief when the Saturday evening performance turned out to be splendid.

I've noticed over the years that performances often improve over the course of a short run at the opera house or Davies Symphony Hall, and the critics usually don't get to see the really good stuff because they generally attend on opening night. In any case, the fabulous Susan Graham, who was reportedly underpowered on Wednesday and Thursday, sounded every inch the great operatic diva and her beautiful voice soared over everything on Saturday.

The opening movement of Mahler's First Symphony could have been a bit slower and more mysterious, and the third movement with the Frere Jacques funeral dirge being run over by a klezmer band could have been more obviously grotesque, but those are quibbles. The performance overall was great, and the long finale, which can easily descend into noisy banality, was genuinely thrilling.

The major joy of the evening was taking my concert buddy Charlie Lichtman above to his first Mahler symphony. Charlie knows lots about classical music but somehow had this huge gap where Mahler is supposed to be, and his reaction at the end of the concert was fun. "Wow! Where's the rest of his stuff? This is the most exciting performance of a piece of music I'd never heard before that I can remember."

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