Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to lead a performance of Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony in E minor. When I last heard MTT perform this symphony at the end of October in 2014, I observed that I had been able to listen to this symphony more than any other work in the Mahler canon during MTT’s tenure. It therefore struck me as appropriate that he would make one last visit as the end of that tenure drew near.
It turns out that the fifth symphony (in C-sharp minor) and the seventh were the first two Mahler symphonies to enter my record collection. (They were given to me by a relative who wanted nothing to do with them.) I have always felt that they make a logical pair, since their five movements are organized in a 2+1+2 structure. However, while the fifth has one of Mahler’s longest Scherzo movements at its core, the Scherzo of the seventh goes by as fast as Lou Costello running out of a haunted house. It is flanked on either side by movements identified as Nachtmusik. The predecessor is a bone-chilling march (leading me to wonder if Mahler knew that line from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” about “where ignorant armies clash by night”); and the successor is basically a lover’s serenade (accompanied by both mandolin and guitar). The beginning movement carries connotations of the onset of darkness, with a harp arpeggio picking out the first stars to be seen in the sky. At the other end of the symphony, the concluding Rondo leaves the night to face the rise of a blazing sun on the horizon.
I have deliberately chosen ornate descriptions because, while the structure is scrupulously formal, there is not a note that passes that does not underscore some expressive disposition. My appreciation of MTT’s efforts as a conductor had much to do with the precise skill with which he could endow all of those notes with their individual connotations. By the time I had experienced his 2014 performance, the Mahler seventh was firmly established in the upper echelons of my personal hierarchy.
Sadly, last night’s effort emerged as far less memorable. The command of the individual notes was as solid as it had ever been, and the overall balance of the resources could not have been better. However, those past sensitivities to subtle connotations did not register as securely last night; and, while the overall dynamic range was rich enough, it seemed as if there were too many climax moments that the attentive listener could not sort into lesser peaks and the “real ones” (as Pierre Boulez put it). As a result, what could usually be enjoyed as a long night’s journey into day kept running the risk of devolving into “one damned thing after another.”
It is clear that MTT has assembled plans for an impressive number of “farewell offerings” between now and the end of next season; and last night left me concerned that some of those that follow may be as disappointing as last night’s offering.