Michael Tilson Thomas began a three-week Mahler Celebration at Davies Symphony Hall on Friday night with a performance of the Fifth Symphony bound to be long remembered, and for two reasons.
One is that it was a great performance, and genuinely great performances are very rare. Mahler's music, and particularly this symphony, is performed often and well, but Tilson Thomas' Fifth took me aback like no Mahler has since Leonard Bernstein's best.
The second is because this Mahler festival could ultimately mark a new era for conductor and orchestra. A friend who has followed the San Francisco Symphony for decades said he had never before heard it perform on such an exalted or blooper-free level as on Friday. I've followed Tilson Thomas' career for decades and never before witnessed him so fully realize his genius.
It is a tired thought to compare Tilson Thomas with Bernstein, but when it comes to Mahler that can't be avoided. Tilson Thomas' whole career has been shadowed by Bernstein. They shared sensibilities, theatricality, gregariousness, eclecticism, versatility and, of course, an exuberant musicality. But there were differences. Bernstein projected a kind of manic sense of introspection, and the contradictions in that gave his Mahler its excitement and edge, and, late in his life, its shamanistic intensity.
Tilson Thomas, on the other hand, has always appeared a more sanguine stage persona, and not always a sincere one. It sometimes felt as though he could ape the Bernstein manner and had the Bernstein talent, but maybe not the depth. Or that he used the Bernstein mantle to cover his own insecurities.
And nowhere was this more apparent than in Tilson Thomas' Mahler. Bernstein's Mahler was dark and got darker through the years, an epic spiritual struggle. His Mahler was, as Bernstein was, obsessed with death and the meaning of life.
Bernstein loomed over Tilson Thomas' Mahler. One heard Bernstein in the younger conductor's insistent attempts to tug at the emotions by exaggerating every expressive marking. And one even heard Tilson Thomas' buoyancy as a kind of contrived rebellion against the Bernstein influence. I remember a Ninth with the London Symphony some years ago that was like a taffy pull.
But the profound revelation of San Francisco's stunning Fifth Symphony is that Tilson Thomas' own personality is probably closer to Mahler's than Bernstein's was. In a public conversation that filled Davies Hall on Thursday night to open the Mahler Celebration, Tilson Thomas and the indefatigable Mahler biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, discounted the idea that the composer's vast symphonies were haunted by death. Rather, they embraced the spirit of life as no other music before them had; that's why they have so much going on in them and why they are so long. Death is there, but as an inevitable part of life.
It is the variety in the music that Tilson Thomas said he loved most, the way Mahler was the first composer to use all the music he heard around him--be it folk music, dance music, military music, Jewish music, Gypsy music--without disguising the source as, say, Brahms might. Himself an incorrigible eclectic, Tilson Thomas then revealed this in performance the next night in an original manner but one that sounded as if Mahler himself had come to life.
Revelation began in the first seconds of the symphony, in the famous opening trumpet solo. No grim fanfare this, but rather liquid, sensuous, free trumpet playing, almost like jazz. And then one heard it all throughout the orchestra in clarinet playing that sounded like klezmer, in luxuriantly sylvan horn solos, in hushed atmospheric timpani punctuations.
The effect was extraordinary. Ironically by giving the musicians an unprecedented amount of freedom to be expressive, Tilson Thomas seemed to play every instrument, or maybe Mahler did. Every detail, every moment, seemed newly alive, newly expressive. Yet Tilson Thomas was also able to project a coherent cohesion to the symphony as a whole. Tempos were elastic but lines were long.
There may be certain calculation in all this. The San Francisco Symphony is not the Vienna Philharmonic, its strings aren't the sweetest or lushest in the world, its brass as golden. But the players have personality, and Tilson Thomas knows his band. He also knows sound, and the range of textures and dynamics was thrilling, enhanced by reseating the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage as was the practice in Mahler's day, but not our own.
The program began with Tilson Thomas accompanying Frederica von Stade in Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer." Accompanied is actually not the right word for this collaboration. Instead, the conductor seemed to clear the path for the mezzo, her voice rich and expressive, to dig into the deepest recesses of Mahler's fervid imagination. Twenty years ago Von Stade made a pleasant recording of these songs, but like Tilson Thomas she has now found the composer's essence.
* The Mahler Celebration continues through June 28 with performances of the eighth and ninth symphonies, $28-$78, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, (415) 864-6000.