Ailing MTT Delivers a Monumental, Heartfelt Mahler Ninth

By Truman C. Wang

Photo credit: San Francisco Symphony

Photo credit: San Francisco Symphony

It was announced last week that Michael Tilson Thomas will take a three-month medical leave following this week’s concerts to undergo heart surgery in Cleveland.  Walking up to the podium, the ailing maestro seemed genuinely moved by the overflowing crowd of well-wishers who turned out for the first of four concerts of Mahler Ninth on Thursday night (June 13). 

The opening bars of the Ninth Symphony reflect Mahler’s – and presumably our conductor’s – heart murmur, the rumble of mitral stenosis.  (Bernstein incorrectly stated in his 1973 Harvard Lectures that it's “an imitation of the arrhythmia of his failing heartbeat".)   In the circumstances of this concert, these initial halting, fluttering sounds suddenly took on a real personal meaning and significance. 

MTT took a dim view of the first movement, Andante comodo, in the sense that the strings lacked luster and the climaxes lacked conviction.  Even the quoted Johann Strauss Jr. waltz Freut euch des Lebens (“Enjoy life!”) was a question mark rather than an exclamation.  The woodwind choir at the end that is supposed to conjure a heavenly vision of the hereafter became a chatter instead.  It was, on the whole, a very dark and unsettling 29 minutes. 

Things lightened up somewhat in the second movement Ländler and the third movement Rondo-Burleske, where dark humor reigns supreme in the sardonic waltz and march.  But even here, a heaviness of heart was ever felt in the jolliest passages. 

Structurally, Mahler’s Ninth is similar to Tchaikovsky's Sixth (Pathétique) – a dance and a march bookended by two gigantic movements, ending in pianissimo (or adalgissimo in Mahler’s case.)  Whatever one might feel about the preceding movements, here in the final 25 minutes, everything gelled together into a cohesive, monumental, soaring vision of the great yonder (as quoted from the fourth song of Kindertotenlieder Oft Denk’ Ich).  The luster was back in the strings, now sounding glorious.  The thrilling long frisson generated by the strings following the climactic cymbal crash was enough to stop many hearts.

We wish the beloved maestro a successful surgery next week and speedy recovery, in time for the new season in September. 

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.