Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

American Mahler

September 25, 2011

San Francisco Symphony with MTT and chorus Photo: mine 2011

I don’t get to hear the San Francisco Symphony as often as I’d like. This weekend I had a chance to see Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas lead the orchestra along with Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the Girls Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. And after hearing that performance, I regret not hearing them more than ever. It was a stellar performance and one that fit in perfectly with the Symphony’s 100th anniversary season that kicked off earlier this month. We can only hope that the Los Angeles Philharmonic's upcoming Mahler cycle under Dudamel approaches being this good. The programming planned for this year in San Francisco should be the envy of every orchestra in America, and there are too many evenings to recommend than I’d be able to list here. (Though you can check out their website or look at John Marcher’s top pics for the season.) But any landmark season for the San Francisco Symphony would call for a major Mahler symphony if for no other reason than his symphonic works represent a big part of the organization’s output over the last decade. Tilson Thomas, who has been music director since 1995, led the symphony on its own independent recording project of all the Mahler Symphonies by creating the symphony's own recording label in 2001. The resulting recordings of Mahler's orchestral music have been much lauded with several Grammy Awards among the honors. (The Symphony has also produced a series of educational documentaries on classical music for PBS entitled Keeping Score that are now available on DVD.) The San Francisco Symphony has proven that doing it yourself can work on a large orchestral scale just as it can for a young solo independent artist.

So this Mahler’s Third serves as a reminder of many of these successes, and the performance I heard on Saturday night was more than just a nostalgic memory. The work starts, of course, with that lengthy march-filled movement that can sound halting and mechanistic. It was a little dry here at times, but it served as a nice contrast to the more emotive, romantic material that followed. The brass section was stupendous in this work, which is rich both in powerful ensemble passages for the brass players as it is in exposed solo parts. The Comodo (Scherzando) third movement was particularly lovely and seamlessly moved between the various themes and material that comprise it. But the best was yet to come. Soprano Katraina Karnéus was the soloist for the last three movements of the work and sounded bright and clear. The chorus was in excellent shape as well. But it was Tilson Thomas and the orchestra that brought it all home in a heartbreaking climax with beautiful tender strings in the slow final movement filled with the melancholy that comes with experience in this most expansive and world-knowing of symphonies.


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