Friday, July 9, 2010

Mahler in Tanglewood

I rarely feel the urge to go back east, but right now I feel it with a heavy tinge of irony. Here we are, two days after Gustav Mahler's 150th birthday in the city where Michael Tilson Thomas has made the San Francisco Symphony one of the leading interpreters of Mahler in the world; but it is July. July is Summer & the Symphony month, captured by the epithet "Cool Nights, Hot Classics." Mahler just does not fit in with that epithet; and, sure enough, none of his music will be performed in Davies Symphony Hall this month. Meanwhile, Michael Tilson Thomas is at Tanglewood, where he will conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's second symphony ("Resurrection") tonight to open the annual summer season. Later in the season he will conduct the third symphony, and Juanjo Mena will conduct the fourth. All these programming arrangements were made by James Levine, who will be absent from the entire season for health reasons.

It is not as if San Francisco does not get enough Mahler. However, will we really have to wait until February 27 to hear his music in this celebratory year; and how is it that this first celebratory gesture will be a performance of the fifth symphony by the Israel Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta? Yes, there will be a far more substantial celebration in May (including the second symphony on May 7 and 8); but one would have thought that Mahler deserved the same kind of ongoing recognition that both Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin have been receiving since the beginning of this calendar year. Meanwhile, this coming winter Thomas will take his performance of the second with the Boston Symphony on a European tour.

There is, nevertheless, at least one positive side of Thomas' plans. The great advantage of subscribing to the San Francisco Symphony is that, when he returns to a Mahler composition prepared in an earlier season, the newer performance never sounds like the older one. There is so much in any Mahler score that one can always approach it validly from many different points of view, and Thomas always seems to seek out ways to shift that point of view. Conducting the music with a different orchestra may lead to his discovering yet other such points of view. On the basis of remarks that Douglas Yeo, bass trombone in the Boston Symphony, made to Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times, Levine and Thomas take significantly different approaches to the score of the second symphony. Chances are that, in the course of his rehearsals, Thomas will get some sense of the "gravitas" (Yeo's word) that Levine brings to the podium and may use it to find yet another approach to performance. That new path may yet lead back to his preparation for the three Mahler symphonies that he will conduct in Davies next May.

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