Fulfilling Mahler’s Ninth at the San Francisco Symphony

Gustav Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas’ final concert this past Saturday for the SF Symphony’s 2018-19 season featured Mahler’s last full symphony, the Ninth. It was a noteworthy moment and an extraordinary experience from start to finish. MTT’s final season with the SFS after a 25-year tenure as innovative director will start this coming September and conclude next June, but it seems as though loyal symphony-goers and fans had already started saying their long goodbyes in 2017, as soon as the conductor’s decision was announced publicly. In addition, MTT took a medical leave promptly after this last Sunday matinee performance in order to undertake a cardiac procedure. 

Mahler Ninth’s association with irregular heartbeats — especially Bernstein’s hypothesis that the hesitant rhythmic motif that starts and ends the symphony is a direct transcription of Mahler’s own heart condition — has been longstanding. While Mahler’s inward compositional intentions will, as ever, remain clouded by history — and, therefore, produce all sorts of equally plausible hypotheses — it is not fit to conflate myth with news and to romanticize MTT’s genuine health concern as so many one-liners and headers to sensational news have done for the past few weeks. 

As soon as MTT emerged on stage he was enveloped in applause, cheering, and a pre-concert ovation: this seemed like yet another early goodbye, a celebratory cheer for his last concert set of the year, a gesture of encouragement — but above all one of profound respect for his many years’ artistic work, and perhaps for his almost unmatched contribution to Mahler interpretation. The conductor responded warmly, but on his initial walk to the stage he looked somewhat reserved, even faint — and it is possible to attribute this to his own remark that lately he had been feeling tired, to his own emotional state in this weighty moment, or perhaps to his artistic mindset right before embarking on the complicated narrative of this symphony, which is after all one of his signature pieces.

The concert itself felt tightly knit and through-performed as though both the conductor and musicians had a comprehensive mind map of the entire piece laid out before their eyes.The structural challenge of the piece is the inner movements’ disruption of the outer movements’ inwardness: it always feels as though the emotionally poignant conclusion would be more effective closely following the first movement. But somehow Saturday’s performance capitalized on Mahler’s intentional choice to dramatize disturbance and disruption, and to show, as in real life, that the spiritually sublime moments are usually punctuated by bursts of the mundane. The first movement circled through the warmth of the opening harmonies through the more disturbing moments of intensity in appropriately violent always (although the brass solos were occasionally a bit too pointy indeed), and this highlighted the piece’s “bargaining” between the light and the dark, and Mahler’s intentional, almost unfair bamboozling of the listener who enjoyed a beautiful melody here, and a sublime moment there, only to be surprised by an emotional jab of doubt or indignation. The performance wove together the moments of full orchestral prowess with the individual voices of solo instruments like the first violin in blindingly beautiful ways: the last five minutes of the movement felt like a bandaid on a disturbed heart. 

The second movement’s contrasting joy, and jolting Ländlerrhythms, felt rather like a welcome interruption in context of this more intense rendition of the earlier movement, and the scherzo’s jerky, frantic progression and rhythmic pauses successfully dispersed the last of the piece’s mellower voices and brought listeners into a fully extroverted state. One audience member even waved his hands more excitedly after the end of each progressive movement, although there was not one “misplaced” desire to applaud throughout the performance, or any real noise even during the most critical and hushed moments of the piece. In other words, the audience fully embodied the aesthetics and ethics of this music’s initial performance ideology: and although the performers themselves, not necessarily the music, seemed to be the object of such tensioned admiration, the moment felt so poignant because the air of expectation from the pre-concert standing ovation to the end was never lost. 

The last movement continued the first’s exploration between dark and light, ultimately negotiating a moment of peace and bliss, and one could feel that philosopher Theodor W. Adorno was too harsh in concluding that Mahler’s optimism in the Ninth was forced and insincere. This performance could not have been more heart-wrenching, and one wished the last movement lasted twice as long as it did. 

Needless to say, MTT walked off stage to great adulation, and the whole audience was buzzing with an array of emotions.


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