By Truman C. Wang
Last weekend, the biggest arts event in San Francisco came to a fiery end with the destruction of the gods in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Not to be outdone, the San Francisco Symphony also ended its season with much fanfare and grandeur in a brilliant concert (6/30) of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Into its six movements, the symphony encapsulates and condenses an entire universe – nature, animals, men, angels and love – not unlike the Wagnerian world of the Ring. Mahler paints the world with the same brush as Wagner, but much more boldly and succinctly. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, like a master painter, gave vivid portrayals of the symphony’s six movements in bold and soft colors. It was every bit as great as his Mahler Fifth in Los Angeles that I heard three months ago.
In terms of depicting nature, the first three movements are a masterpiece on par with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. The reading by the San Francisco Symphony was exuberant in the marches and climaxes (first movement), colorful in the interplay between brasses and winds (third movement), and sublime in the gentle glow of the gossamer strings (second movement).
One cannot say enough good things about the brass section of the San Francisco Symphony, particularly the trombone’s memorable contributions in the Third Symphony’s many vital passages. In the third movement (“What the Animals Tell Me”), a rustic scherzo with visions of animals on an Alpine meadow, the distant echoes of an off-stage flugelhorn (played by two trumpets in this concert) sounded uncomfortably too loud and too close (perhaps one trumpet should have sufficed?) There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, after all.
The last three movements are more philosophical and try to answer life’s big questions. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang the Zarathustra song in the fourth movement with refulgent tones and brooding intensity, to the golden accompaniment of the San Francisco Symphony strings and brasses. The fifth movement’s heavenly “Bim, bam” chorus heard the angelic voices of the Pacific Boychoir and the women of San Francisco Symphony Chorus, as well as Ms. Cooke’s deeply soulful voice soaring above it all.
The sixth and last movement (“What Love Tells Me”) started out as a love song in the vein of the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto, sung in velvet, hushed tone by the strings. It gradually reached not one, but two brilliant climaxes to rival the best of July 4th fireworks. The San Francisco Symphony brasses again distinguished themselves in a memorable chorale just before the final coda.
With all due respect to my homies the L.A. Phil and Gustavo Dudamel, MTT has honed the San Francisco Symphony into the finest Mahler orchestra on the West Coast. He will be sorely missed when he retires after the 2019/20 season.
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.