Over the course of the last decade, during which the San Francisco Symphony
performed and recorded Gustav Mahler's entire symphonic repertoire
, I thought I had caught at least one performance of all of them, including the 3rd when it was last performed in 2002. Apparently my memory isn't what it used to be, because after Thursday night's performance I'm convinced I'd never heard the piece before. How could I have forgotten something so monumental- a work that when it concluded (two hours, no intermission) had struck me as being both ridiculous and stupendous?
The first movement is a monster of Milton-esque proportions as darkness and light fought one another for supremacy. It's the sound of things coming apart, falling into despair, where, by the sheer power of what- hope? love? pick a positive noun- the overwhelming sadness transforms into a jaunty march, striding into the sunlight, traipsing about like Professor Harold Hill holding the hand of Stuart Smalley, only to be pulled back into the shadows by clarion calls from the brass section while the strings shimmer ominously underneath them. Remorse, danger, despair- Mahler loads it all on top of one another, only to sweep it all away with bursts of brass, huge blasts from a ridiculously stuffed percussion section, and plaintive solos pushing everything back into the light- into a place where everything is redeemed because the forces of good always triumphing over those of evil. Yes, of course I know I've overwritten this and it's nonsense- consider it my homage to the first movement.
The second movement, "a sentimental minuet" according to the program notes, dances between yin and yang in more delicate ways, the percussion quiets down, allowing the winds and strings to explore more sensual terrain, which in MTT's hands entered into the realm of eros, yet even there something dark and sinister seemed to lurk under the covers. It's too pretty- too sentimental, and ends with a dream in which a promise goes unfulfilled.
The third movement's a jaunty scherzo, manipulating the listener back into the lighter realms of the first, and for a long stretch it's a dance program which is suddenly interrupted by Mark Inouye's brilliant posthorn coming from the top of the house, evoking all the mysticism Mahler could muster. The dance then began anew, only to yield to the posthorn once again and everything slows down until the dance is allowed to resume. At this point I grew exasperated with it all, and wanted to let the darkness take over and have its way with me. And then as if on cue, the darkness returned, summoned by a blast of timpani and of course brass, but it didn't last, instead it was just another herald, the opening of the scherzo brought back at its close, this time with force.
The mezzo-soprano Katerina Karné
us had taken her place onstage before the third movement and now she's ready for her part as the fourth opens ominously. She sings some Nietzsche, as if there hasn't been enough fighting for the soul already (we've crossed the hour mark at this point), here's the woman in red telling us to "Take heed, humanity!" However, she does issue the warning beautifully, conveying the text's awareness of joy and pain. Notice a theme here? Of course you do, because Mahler is determined to keep hitting us over the head- darkness and light, joy and pain, spy vs. spy- all the complexities of the life split into competing factions and there is no middle ground anywhere to be seen.
The fifth movement opens with a rebuke to the sadness we just heard as the Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus chime in, complete with ding-dong bells accompanying them, singing the sweet song of angels. The women and girls have been sitting in the rear terrace seats above the orchestra from the beginning and I had to wonder what mental exercises they must have performed to keep it together for almost an hour and a half before they get to sing less than five minutes of music. It just seems so unfair- almost sadistic on Mahler's part, to have all these people gathered for such a long time, only to have them contribute something so obvious, so fleeting, and ultimately inconsequential in light of what follows.
Which is the final movement (the sixth), an immense adagio. It's actually more than immense. It's monumental, and it was one of the most amazing performances I've ever heard. I haven't yet mentioned how glorious all of this sounded from the moment it began, but it did, as if MTT and the orchestra wanted to present the results of their experience with Mahler over the last ten years in this one performance, summed up in this last movement, as if to state this is where we've come, this is what we can do, this is what ten years of exploring Mahler sounds like. And it was nothing short of phenomenal. The adagio reaches for Tristan level emotion and scale and the orchestra took it all the way there without flinching. Wave after wave of gorgeous passages unfurled from the stage, filling the hall with a magnificent wall of sound. It was exhausting, but it was thrilling. I would gladly sit through it all again, just to hear that last movement one more time.
There are two performances left and tickets are available as of the time I write this and since this is the only Mahler on the schedule for the entire year, you may want to get over to Davies tonight or tomorrow afternoon. So far, the Centennial Season is off to a pretty amazing start.