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S & H International Concert Review
 
Strauss, Songs & Mahler, Symphony No.9
, Barbara Bonney (sop), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, April 25, 2003 (HS)

 

In Mahler's Symphony No. 9, most listeners feel most acutely the pangs of farewell as the radiant themes cling to life, fading into silence at the end. And it's true, a sense of something coming to a close pervades Mahler's final completed piece. As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through a startlingly vivid performance in this week's subscription concerts, there was the clear sense that more was at work here than a mere farewell. It was a whole life.

Thomas mined the restlessness of the big first movement, with its inchoate strands of themes gradually finding links, moving from one miraculous transition to the next almost breathlessly. It was a portrait of youth in sound. Even in the brief silences, there was such a propulsive feeling that it was like Mahler couldn't wait to get to the next idea. And yet, embedded in all that vigour, Thomas made sure to bring out the first appearances of the thematic material, especially the five-note expansion of that familiar mordent that would eventually pervade the finale, when that can't-wait feeling of the opening movement becomes the can't-let-go of the last several minutes.

It sure didn't hurt that the symphony musicians were playing at a high level of intensity. The strings showed a richness, even a lushness, that sometimes eludes them under other conductors. The augmented woodwinds played with impressive unanimity as a group and with plenty of individual flair when the melodic ball was passed their way. The brass, especially the horns and acting principal horn Robert Ward, were simply flawless. Timpanist David Herbert again demonstrated why he's one of the best around, every stroke giving the whole orchestra a palpable lift.

This was a responsive group, unafraid of making nasty sounds when the score calls for it. For example, Thomas took the opening bars of the scherzo, as sardonic as any Mahler wrote, just a little slower than usual and made it sound even more ponderous as the musicians gave it just enough blattiness. Later, in the finale, when the strings re-emerge at ppp after a climactic silence, the effect was almost otherworldly. This was playing at a remarkably high level.

Similarly sensitive playing marked the orchestra's work with soprano Barbara Bonney in four songs by Richard Strauss. No, not the Four Last Songs (which, come to think of it, would have made an interesting, if somewhat redundant, thematic pairing with the Mahler Ninth), but a much lighter, often gently witty, group. It began with Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland (the three kings of the orient), with its lowing trombones suggesting the oxen in the manger and the trilling woodwinds representing the Christ child crying, and Ich wollt' ein Struasslein binden, a wry send-up of the she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not genre of song. The set continued with Wiegenlied (cradle song), a sweet paean to maternal love, and the evergeen Morgen (tomorrow), on love of a somewhat more erotic nature.

Bonney used her honeyed soprano voice with utter simplicity for these songs, rather than trying to lather on any extra layers of meaning. With similarly straightforward underpinnings from the orchestra, the result was lovely for using purely musical means to paint unmistakable and memorable sound pictures.

Although the Mahler Ninth is scheduled to be recorded as part of the current Mahler CD cycle, it won't be these performances but others scheduled in the fall of 2004. Those who want a preview can tune into streaming audio of radio broadcast of this week's performances, to be broadcast the week of May 5. Try the readily available websites of several U.S. radio stations, including KUHF in Houston (www.kuhf.org) on Thursdays and KBPS in Portland, Ore. (www.allclassical.org) on Fridays.

Thomas and the orchestra are taking the Mahler Ninth on their European tour in May. Although they're not scheduled to play it at any of their three concerts in England, it is on the program for the National Concert Hall in Dublin May 7, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam May 15, at the Philharmonie in Cologne May 17, at the Konzerthaus in Vienna May 20 and at Théâtre Champs Elysée in Paris May 25.

Bonney sings on several of these and other programs, not Strauss but Thomas' own set of recently composed songs, Poems of Emily Dickinson, including a performance at the Barbican Centre in London May 9.

Harvey Steiman
 
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 2003 EUROPEAN TOUR
Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director
 
Wednesday, May 7 at 8:00 p.m.
National Concert Hall / Dublin, Ireland
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

San Francisco Symphony

MAHLER / Symphony No. 9 in D major

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thursday, May 8 at 8:00 p.m.
National Concert Hall / Dublin, Ireland
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

TCHAIKOVSKY / Manfred Symphony, Opus 58

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Friday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Barbican Centre / London, England
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

COPLAND / Symphony No. 3

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Saturday, May 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Barbican Centre / London, England
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Barbara Bonney, soprano

San Francisco Symphony

TILSON THOMAS / Poems of Emily Dickinson

TCHAIKOVSKY / Manfred Symphony, Opus 58

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sunday, May 11 at 8:00 p.m.
The Dome / Brighton, England
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

TCHAIKOVSKY / Manfred Symphony, Opus 58

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Tuesday, May 13 at 8:00 p.m.
Palais des Beaux Arts / Brussels, Belgium
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

TCHAIKOVSKY / Manfred Symphony, Opus 58

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thursday, May 15 at 8:15 p.m.
Concertgebouw / Amsterdam, Netherlands
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

San Francisco Symphony

MAHLER / Symphony No. 9 in D major

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Friday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m.
Tonhalle / Düsseldorf, Germany
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

TCHAIKOVSKY / Manfred Symphony, Opus 58

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Saturday, May 17 at 8:00 p.m.
Philharmonie / Cologne, Germany
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Barbara Bonney, soprano

San Francisco Symphony

TILSON THOMAS / Poems of Emily Dickinson

MAHLER / Symphony No. 9 in D major

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sunday, May 18 at 8:00 p.m.
Philharmonie / Cologne, Germany
 
 
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

COPLAND / Symphony No.3

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Tuesday, May 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Konzerthaus / Vienna, Austria
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Barbara Bonney, soprano

San Francisco Symphony

TILSON THOMAS / Poems of Emily Dickinson

MAHLER / Symphony No. 9 in D major

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Wednesday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m.
Konzerthaus / Vienna, Austria
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

COPLAND / Symphony No. 3

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Friday, May 23 at 8:00 p.m.
Dvofiák Hall / Prague, Czech Republic
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Barbara Bonney, soprano

San Francisco Symphony

TILSON THOMAS / Poems of Emily Dickinson

TCHAIKOVSKY / Manfred Symphony, Opus 58

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Saturday, May 24 at 8:00 p.m.
Dvofiák Hall / Prague, Czech Republic
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Hilary Hahn, violin

San Francisco Symphony

JOHN ADAMS / My Father Knew Charles Ives (SFS Commission)

STRAVINSKY / Violin Concerto in D major

COPLAND / Symphony No. 3

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sunday, May 25 at 8:00 p.m.
Théâtre Champs Élysées / Paris, France
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Barbara Bonney, soprano

San Francisco Symphony

TILSON THOMAS / Poems of Emily Dickinson

MAHLER / Symphony No. 9 in D major

------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 


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