Arts & Culture » Music

Mahler's world in all of its splendor

by Philip Campbell

LEFT: San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo: SFS  RIGHT: Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Photo: Dario Acosta
LEFT: San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo: SFS RIGHT: Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Photo: Dario Acosta  

It's 23 years and counting as Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas wrapped another memorable season with the San Francisco Symphony last week in concerts devoted entirely to Gustav Mahler's glorious Symphony No. 3.

The maestro has promised us two more seasons before stepping down in 2019-20, intentionally overlapping celebrations of his 75th birthday with 25 years on the podium at Davies Symphony Hall. San Francisco's musical pied piper has said he likes the consonance of round numbers, but I'm still grappling with the jarring significance of his decision. We have been processing slowly since the announcement in 2017, and keeping calm, knowing he will remain in the newly created post of music director laureate and conduct at least four weeks each year. More of his trademark special programming projects are also on the horizon.

Behind-the-scenes transition work and recruitment is left to the SFS and Executive Director Mark C. Hanson (appointed one year ago). MTT will surely lend a hand; it is the sort of challenge he has faced himself triumphantly. The entire back-story lent special poignancy to the maestro's entrance last week for the matinee first performance of the season-closing Mahler Third.

MTT's life-long association with the composer has famously yielded interpretations that reflect his emotional and intellectual attachment. After basking in the glow of the audience's prolonged welcome, he turned to his colleagues and led all of us through the composer's joyous expression of the world and its entire chaotic splendor.

Even after listening to MTT and Mahler's Symphony No. 3 repeatedly, on disc and also live and in person, there was a special sense of wonder and appreciation in his latest illumination. An awesome communion between performers and audience helped make the season finale a moving experience that is certain to remain in memory all summer.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was a radiant standout in the settings of Nietzsche's "O Mensch Gib Acht!" ("Take heed, humanity!") and the enchanting "Three angels sang a sweet song" from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Boy's Magic Horn"). Her partnering with MTT in Mahler has always been remarkable, and I share his admiration for her purely beautiful voice.

Pacific Boychoir (Andrew Brown, director) has been appearing at DSH a lot lately, and they returned to stand beside Women of the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, director) to complete the magnificent ensemble onstage.

Horns, strings, and of course, ace trumpeter Mark Inouye raised the roof with the powerful force of their intense involvement, and the exhilarated audience rose in unison. Standing ovations are ubiquitous these days, but seldom are they so sincere and deserved.

The previous week of subscription concerts showed MTT's range, and also his support of visiting soloists. The performance of the two final symphonies in the canon of seven by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius proved a bracing and affectionate reminder of the composer's expansive appeal and his unique melodic landscape.

Smartly programmed for the second half of the bill, the appearance of Daniil Trifonov in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 prompted a raucous standing ovation that was both predictable and well-earned. I directed a lot of my energy and appreciation towards MTT as well, as he stood at the side of the young virtuoso, graciously allowing him a solo moment in the spotlight.

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