Friday night’s performance of Mahler's Third Symphony at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas brought something for everyone: Mahlerian intensity, aided by impeccable brass solos; breezy, childlike brightness sprinkled by the Pacific Boychoir; beautiful, flexible singing from the Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus; and heartfelt, intimately nuanced singing from Sasha Cooke. This symphony, Mahler's longest, was the sole item on the program: an intense demand on listeners’ emotional concentration and attention spans. As expected, this was not an issue for the Symphony, or for MTT — one of the foremost Mahler interpreters of our day, who is recording the cycle for the second time before he steps down as director in 2020. Together, they achieved the perfect balance between affective precision, musical expressivity and storytelling narrative.

Sasha Cooke © Dario Acosta
Sasha Cooke
© Dario Acosta

The whole performance had an air of an event. As soon as it began, one could recall the history behind the sounds: this was music that drastically changed listening cultures, that — more so than Beethoven’s Ninth, even more so than Wagner altogether — demanded listeners’ attention. An inevitable change had taken place in the history of humanity, told the horns with immense power and pressure, as the cymbals emphasized the stretched-out dissonance; this required the timpani to respond with a low, quiet, but ominous, rumble — the sound of time — forcing the listeners to contemplate eternity. Thus plunged the performers into one of the most typical of Mahler’s funeral-like first movements: the moment felt important, the event significant, the music oppressive, and necessarily so.

Yet sweet moments found their way even into this most drastic of narratives: Nadya Tichman’s violin solo in the second main theme of the first movement was a sigh of sweetness, a chirping heart’s joyful song; high woodwinds added to the picturesque landscape with humorous, slightly ironic birdlike calls. The oppressive music and the idyllic landscape alternated for more than the usual thirty minutes, but not once did MTT lose the thread of the narrative: this was a journey with a purpose. The first two movements in the second part dissipated this high-strung energy, leading listeners’ minds and hearts to lighter places — first, with a soft, natural-sounding minuet and its rambunctious B section, then with a scherzo, one not dripping with as much irony as one might typically expect of a Mahlerian dance. Here the pointed woodwind music was secondary in importance to the reassuring off-stage trumpet solos, whose invisibility evoked the connection between the worldly and the otherworldly, reminding listeners again of the more serious topics at play.

If this second movement verged on feeling too extensive (as it sometimes does, simply in light of its place within the work’s structure), the fourth brought with it a new guest — the graceful voice and presence of mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke. Here the serious music from the first movement which suggested “the eternal” made a comeback, but infinity was no longer fearful. “O Mensch!” felt like a beam of light slowly opening up in the midst of this universal darkness and the beautiful interplay that followed between the orchestra (starry-sounding violins) and the soloist’s heartfelt reassurance, even consolation (with Nietzsche, out of all philosophers’, words!) was wholly mesmerizing — one of the highlights of the performance. After this exquisite moment, the boy’s chorus made its confident appearance, accompanied by celebratory suspended cymbals, and the women of the SF Chorus joined in this (mostly) heart-leaping festivity, emotionally the moment of pre-synthesis before the finale, with a mixture of high energy and contemplativeness.

If the extensive lyrical outpouring one might expect from Mahler hadn’t made its appearance, it was certainly time for it now. Twenty-six minutes might have seemed at first impossible to get through after this already lengthy, intricate story; but so well and comprehensively did the performers tell this story (the final statement the work’s solution), that one could have heard this ideal rendition — a single, all-encompassing, indeed eternal, moment — over and over again into the night. Less subdued than the bombastic finale of the Seventh, and more externally conclusive than the Ninth’s heart-wrenching cascade of sentiment at the end, in these last moments of the performance clearly fully delighted listeners in a variety of ways (tears, smiles, cheers). The evening felt like an all-around celebration, for the music, the ear, the mind and the soul — even in time for Mahler’s own birthday next week.