At this week’s regular subscription concerts, San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) gave us the beginning of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic works and the very end, an unusual program he will take on the road to Carnegie Hall next week.
It is an interesting concept but, unfortunately, MTT chose to turn things around, putting the end—the isolated Adagio from the 10th Symphony-- first on the program, and the beginning--Mahler’s First Symphony—last.
Though it is not unusual to play the Adagio alone as the first half of the concert, I find it lessens the dramatic impact of playing the two works together to tell Mahler’s story even if in abridged form.
You don’t start a story at the end and work backward!
Nowadays, the most substantial work typically is placed last on the program which is the way MTT did it, though I have been informed by Herbert Blomstedt that 100 years ago it was the other way around; the most substantial piece was played first when the public was more receptive.
In the case of what MTT is doing, which is not just programming two unrelated pieces of music but trying to tell a Mahler story, there is a happy coincidence between telling the story the right way from the beginning and getting the show off to a good start with Mahler’s new, creative and youthful music.
Putting the weighty Adagio first is just not effective showmanship in my view. Nor is it a good idea to have an intermission after only 25 minutes of music with the public just settling in.
Still, had MTT put the Adagio last, would the public have come back after the intermission? I am not so sure. Not easy!
As for the actual performances, both MTT and the San Francisco musicians were in absolutely top form. MTT looks and acts like a man half his age (72). He is a master of this material and the players appear to respond to his obvious love of Mahler as well as his rhythmic and technical cues.
These were full bodied satisfying performances on an absolutely world-class level.
MTT, whose family roots go deep into the Yiddish theater, was particularly effective in the symphony’s controversial third movement whose middle section features the famous funeral march with its shtetl music that the anti-Semitic Viennese loved to hate.
When MTT plays this music, he plays it as a respectful quotation, not a mocking parody that some Mahler revisionists claim it to be (if the revisionists are right, Mahler certainly fooled the anti-Semites).
Recent SFS personnel changes also added substantially to the concert’s pleasures. The woodwinds with their bird and cuckoo sounds are extremely important in the nature-infused First Symphony, and the returning (from Chicago) principal oboist, Eugene Izotov, was a splendid soloist. Welcome back, Eugene!
The new timpanist (from Pittsburgh), Edward Stephen, was spectacular in the grandiose final movement. I was very sorry when David Herbert left the orchestra but Mr. Stephen is helping me forget.
My only gripe about the SFS—and it’s a continuing problem—is that the trumpets play too loud, creating blare and imbalances. Even the principal trumpet must be part of the orchestra’s organic sound, not place his top notes outside of it.
It is a ‘team sport’ after all.