Gustav Mahler: From the New World

Revelling in newly remembered beauties from the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas

Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911; Head and shoulders, facing left

Aimé Dupont's 1909 portrait of Gustav Mahler while in New York | Source: U.S. Library of Congress

The 35th Music Festival at the Konzerthaus is in full swing, with this year’s motto “Mahler and America” to commemorate Mahler Year 2011 (the centenary of his death). And while the festival continues until Jun. 21, the four concerts of the San Francisco Symphony from May 21 to 25 have already been a brilliant focal point. We got everything that fine music-making demands: swing and spring, languor and lilt, punch and power – as well as the immaculate intonation of a truly great orchestra.

The SF Symphony was founded in 1911, and thus is also commemorating a centenary year.  It is celebrating with a European tour whose highlight is Mahler. I was left breathless by nearly successive evenings of three Mahler symphonies – the 2nd, 6th and 9th– and a fourth program of Berg’s violin concerto and Beethoven’s 5th. What a distinction, and perhaps surprise, to hear Californians at the heart of Vienna’s Mahler festival. But the SF Symphony can perhaps be considered at the peak of Mahler interpreters: Just last year the orchestra completed a ten-year project of recording the entire cycle of Mahler symphonies and all his works for voice and orchestra, as well as producing a documentary of Mahler’s life and works, Keeping Score: Gustav Mahler.

The Symphony’s chief conductor Michael Tilson Thomas – or MTT as he is familiarly called by his musicians and American fans – is a native Californian, born and trained in Los Angeles. And he is a Mahler specialist. From California? As MTT quickly points out, music in Los Angeles, and California in general, was greatly influenced by the numbers of musician émigrés it absorbed before, during and after WWII. Drawn to some degree by the Hollywood studios, California was also a magnet because of the sun and warmth (notwithstanding a poem by Bertolt Brecht about Los Angeles, entitled “On Thinking about Hell”).

Initially a musical wasteland, California soon became a mecca. From Arnold Schoenberg to Igor Stravinsky, Jasha Heifetz to Gregor Piatigorsky, Max Steiner to Kurt Weill, starting in the 1930s and continuing even into the 80s, music-making and teaching in Los Angeles was dominated by Europeans. The roster of professors of the music department at the University of Southern California, Julliard of the West Coast and alma mater of MTT, long read like a pre-war Central European telephone book. Hearing the San Francisco Symphony, it is clear that California is still reaping the benefits.

When conducting, MTT is as graceful as a flamenco dancer: With his head thrown back, his feet seem to use the podium as a dance floor. Absolute precision and clarity are combined with great ease and enormous economy of movement. Swinging his torso from left to right only in moments of great vigor, he gives needed accents not with sharp gestures, but with a small springing leaps, like those of a gazelle. With soft, relaxed hands, he allows his string players to draw out a warm and pressure-less tone that is unusual for an American orchestra.

In contrast, the brilliance of his brass and winds is very much American, with great virtuosity and perfect intonation. MTT’s pointing finger never commands, it just says, “Now, it’s your turn.” The resulting sound testifies to an intellectual prowess combined with a refined understanding of the music’s emotional meaning.

The 12-tone lyricism of the Berg concerto (finely wrought by Christian Tetzlaff) was true to its dedication, “dem Andenken eines Engels,” In Memory of an Angel. (The concerto was written in the months after the death, at 18, of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler from her second marriage.) The Beethoven kept me at the edge of my seat. But it was Mahler that let me revel in newly remembered beauty.

Within the dense instrumentation of the Mahler symphonies, MTT creates a lovely transparency, he draws out a chamber-music-like grace from his orchestra. Mahler seems to rejoice in stretching our hearing range: from the sub-depths of the contra-bassoon or tuba, to the shrillest reaches of the piccolo. Violin harmonics that are so high, one wonders if they are possible to notate. We hear a searching and a yearning. We hear Mahler’s inner ear, the repeated small motifs that shift subtly through the orchestra, as if looking for just the right color, the sounds and the landscape of Mahler’s world that have found their way into his vocabulary.

Mahler was primarily a conductor. He composed his nine (and a half) symphonies during his vacation months. All but the first were the creations of summers in the Austrian mountains, often in a small hut where he could retreat to concentrate. An anecdote is related in the biography of the conductor Bruno Walter: When as a young man he visited Mahler at the Attersee, Walter paused to look at the magnificent view of the Höllengebirge. Mahler interrupted him. “You don’t need to look at that, I’ve already composed it all.”

And yes, we hear far-off cowbells from a meadow, the church bells of a valley village, the thunder on the mountain ridge. It seems as if MTT has seen it all, and also heard it in his inner ear. He understands. Like my memory of the smell of the dry Californian mountains after a rare shower, the SF Symphony knows the steamy mist after a summer thunderstorm in the Alps.


DVD: Keeping Score: Gustav Mahler with Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony, available at 
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