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S & H International Concert Review

Mahler Symphony No. 5; Beethoven Marches, Cherubini Overture to Anacréon San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, Davies Symphony Hall, March 3, 2004 (HS)

Any performance of a Mahler symphony is an occasion, but this one had something extra. Before it even began, a representative of NARAS delivered the orchestra's Grammy Award for best classical recording, announced last month, honoring its 2-CD set with music director Michael Tilson Thomas of Mahlerís Third coupled with Kindertotenlieder. Then, after a short first half of forgettable Beethoven marches and a Cherubini overture, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra delivered something unforgettable of their own, a Mahler Fifth bristling with brilliant solo turns and glorious ensembles held together by an interpreter who never seems to take a false step with Mahler these days.

Conducting without a score, Tilson Thomas led a traversal that was not so much a sustained journey than a celebration of all the dead ends, wrong turns and unexpected blazes of sunlight in Mahler's score. In the Fifth, completed in 1904 and revised finally in 1907, the composer of four song-saturated symphonies was searching for a new direction. He found it, edging closer to a more dissonant harmonic language, incorporating a great deal more polyphony and, despite its more traditional, symmetrical form, the music goes skidding off into ever more unexpected byways.

In a letter to his wife, Alma, Gustav Mahler wrote, ""Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?"

Right from the opening measures, Mahler sets the tone. An extended solo fanfare, played here with barely-contained nervous energy by principal trumpet Glenn Fischtal, leads to an orchestral explosion that rapidly collapses onto itself, leading to the statement of the first, highly lyrical theme by hushed violins. It was an omen of great things to come that the crash of the orchestra rocked me back into my seat, and the violins played that first theme with such spectral, virtually vibrato-free sound that they had me leaning forward again.

That kind of attention to detail showed itself repeatedly throughout this performance. Especially intriguing was the astonishing array of timbres coming from the violin section. At one point, the violins sustain a note that, a few seconds later, the horns would pick up and extend into a long, arching melody. The violins actually shaded their sound to something almost metallic, foreshadowing the horns' entry. At another point, with the strings playing pizzicato, associate principal bassoon Steven Dibner entered with a counter melody that had the same quick attack-and-release sound as the plucked strings. Musicians often do this. Dibner got the sound so right, he sounded like a cello.

The net effort of all this not only created interesting effects, but also a palette of sound that served to glue the music together. With so many different ideas coming and going in the score, it can easily seem episodic and unrelated. These timbre mirrors were part of the solution. Another part was Tilson Thomas' approach to tempo relationships. The pulse ebbed and flowed, but always came to rest with a clear relationship with what came before and what was coming afterwards. Phrasing always had shape.

The results were riveting, especially in the sprawling scherzo that is the centerpiece of the five-movement work. The horn section, led by principal Robert Ward, distinguished itself, not only playing with accuracy but shaping their sound to make it round and mellow one moment, nasty and blaring the next. The famous Adagietto, which followed, taken at not quite as slow a pace as often heard, still created a sensation of hovering quietly. Again, the strings went for a hollow sound in the quieter sections, only introducing vibrato in those few measures when the volume increased to forte, a courageous and striking effect.

After all this seriousness and exploration, the finale refuses to take itself seriously. Several times it reaches for a climax, only to brush it aside in favor of music that seems to giggle behind its hand. The most obvious example is at the very end. Having spent more than an hour moving away from the complex key of C-sharp minor, Mahler finally reaches the final pages in the sunny, open key of D major. Even as the brass chorale from the second movement returns in a gesture of triumph, intoned brilliantly by massed trumpets, trombones, tuba and horns, the final measures intrude with a rapid scurrying and a final whump! that always reminds me of door slamming. The orchestra nailed this finish with such vivid execution half the audience was out of its seats almost on the rebound.

Audio evidence of this turbo-charged performance can be heard the week of March 15 on radio stations, including those heard on the internet, that carry the San Francisco Symphony broadcasts.

Harvey Steiman




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