A San Franciscan Night to Remember at Disney Hall

By Truman C. Wang

Photo credit: Stefan Cohen, San Francisco Symphony

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Last night’s visit by the San Francisco Symphony was greeted with a rare weeknight capacity crowd hungry for Mahler and they went home hugely satisfied.  For one thing, the skills and caliber of Mahler playing, honed over two decades by Bernstein protégé Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) in San Francisco, were on brilliant display here.  For another thing, the feather-light articulation of the strings, with the bows barely touching, is probably as unique to San Francisco as Rice-A-Roni.

Interestingly, in the program-opener, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, the string tones were warm and bows were normally weighted.  This can only mean that a deliberate attempt was made to make the Mahler strings sound different.  Violinist Gil Shaham gave a beautifully tender account of the first movement, a hair-raising, string-breaking second movement, and a serenely magical chorale ending that would have benefited from that ethereal ‘Mahler sound’ from the orchestra.

Like Berg’s modernist concerto, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is also preoccupied with death that finds salvation and redemption in love – a very Wagnerian, Romantic idée fixe that carried well into modern times.  Mahlerians loved the lush sounds Bernstein drew from the Vienna Philharmonic.  MTT, in contrast, favored a more astringent sound and clarity of details, but still achieved the same noble and grand results.  From the Funeral March onward, to the tempestuous second movement, the clarity of inner-lines and hairpin dynamics was akin to the sharp turns of a roller coaster ride.  The gossamer San Francisco strings heaved and sighed while wafting through air with hummingbird-like dexterity.  The Scherzo was a shadowy, sardonic version of a Viennese waltz, featuring some ferocious pizzicato strings.  The celebrated fourth-movement Adagietto clocked in at a somewhat elegiac 11 minutes and played like a bittersweet love song (makes sense given Alma’s troubled history).  The joyful, life-affirming Rond-Finale was brilliantly realized with vivid instrumental colors and breathless excitement.  I would be remiss not to also mention the extraordinary contributions from the brasses and woodwinds in the first movement and the Scherzo. 

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.