Sep 23, 2011
by Joshua Kosman
The Third Symphony is Mahler’s most capacious – some might say overstuffed – work, a huge baggy monster into which the 35-year-old composer attempted to cram all he knew about life, the universe and everything. But what Wednesday’s powerful performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony underscored was that the key to the entire piece arrives only in its final movement.
That finale, some 20 minutes of slow, impassioned counterpoint unfolding in a stately but urgent flood, takes everything that has come before in Mahler’s unruly panorama – all the military marches and birdcalls, the nightmare depths and heavenly exultation – and subsumes it into a glorious musical meditation.
That, at least, was the moral of Wednesday’s performance in Davies Symphony Hall. It was a potent and expressive rendition throughout, marked by vibrant, responsive playing from the orchestra and luminous singing from mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus and an array of female choristers.
But with the arrival of the finale, Thomas and his troops reached for – and found – a whole new level of brilliance. The playing was rich and weighty without ever sounding turgid, and Thomas combined the slow tempo with a rhythmic grandeur that made the music sound both sensual and ethereal.
Thomas had led the Third Symphony here before, most recently in a 2002 performance that was recorded for the orchestra’s Mahler cycle. Yet I can’t recall such a broadly focused approach to a work that carries the risk of spiraling out of control at any moment.
The first movement in particular is a more-than-30-minute epic that all by itself constitutes the first part of Mahler’s two-part formal scheme, balanced against five movements in the second half. It stops and starts, losing and re-gathering momentum thanks to the constant undercurrent of military marches.
Thomas charted this course superbly, aided by forceful contributions from the brass (especially principal trombonist Timothy Higgins) and a rock-solid foundation provided by the percussion section. As the regiment paraded back and forth through the town square – the first movement is nothing if not cinematic in its effect – Thomas kept bringing the picture in and out of focus with a sure hand.
The ensuing musical interludes were capably done as well, the graceful minuet movement led by oboist William Bennett and the scherzo graced by a breathtakingly beautiful posthorn solo delivered from the upper terrace by principal trumpeter Mark Inouye.
In the vocal movements, Karnéus’ throaty, ominous delivery of Nietzsche’s Midnight Song from “Also Sprach Zarathustra” gave way to a bright, evocative picture of heaven from the women of Ragnar Bohlin’s Symphony Chorus and the members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus led by Susan McMane.
Still, the capstone of this marathon performance was in its final leg. Rarely had the strings sounded so plush or sumptuous; never had the whole orchestra pulled together with such expressive virtuosity. I never wanted it to end.