Over his career, Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas has developed an uncanny identification with the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. This gives his conducting of these difficult works a confidence and an over-arching line that serves as a rhythmic and musical umbrella, beneath which Mahler's wonderful variety of melodies, themes, colors, textures and tempo changes can all be safely protected from the storm of ensemble issues, pitch problems or general disintegration. 

Kelley O'Connor © Dario Acosta
Kelley O'Connor
© Dario Acosta
However, Wednesday night's performance of Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony felt as if perhaps there had not been an opportunity for ample rehearsals involving all of the "moving pieces" – the two soloists and the off-stage brass segments, in particular. I am positive that this performance and interpretation will "gel" and mature over the three remaining concerts in the series.

The San Francisco Symphony knows this tremendous piece extremely well, and has been recording a series of Mahler symphonies with MTT to huge critical acclaim. But this evening's soprano, Karina Gauvin (who made her San Francisco Symphony debut in 2011 singing this same work) seemed unsure of her entrances, despite her beautiful voice, and for whatever reason, that insecurity seemed to also restrict her voice from soaring confidently but ethereally, as required during the famously cherished soprano passages of the final movement. I was excitedly waiting for these magical soprano entrances with their innocent, impossibly beautiful pitches spun in soaring legato phrases. Mahler's music itself, played splendidly by the SFS at that point, definitely transported me heavenward, but (sadly) the solo singing was a disappointment. 

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor fared better this evening, particularly in the fourth movement, Urlicht (Primal Light). She possesses an absolutely captivating stage presence that engages the audience in listening/reacting to the music with her, as she sways in rhythm during the long orchestral sections. She feels every word she sings, and her face tells a story – it is easy to see why several contemporary composers (John Adams included) have written their works specifically for her. Tonight, her voice didn't always seem quite consistent in quality through all of its range, and that at times affected the overall line, but without diminishing her obvious feeling for this music, her excellent preparation, solid musicianship, and connection with the audience.  

The SF Symphony Chorus, prepared by Ragnar Bohlin, Chorus Director since 2007, was a revelation. They did a spectacular job in every respect, and in every vocal section. During the excellent pre-concert talk given by Laura Stanfield Prichard she explained that Mahler emphatically insisted that the four-part chorus for this symphony be sung by equal parts male and female singers rather than by all-male choruses employing boy sopranos/altos, as was the custom of the time. Ms Stanfield-Prichard connected this to Mahler's support for Universalist beliefs that only men and women together, as equals, could fully represent humanity and build unity through sound. And indeed, the sheer power of these final choral segments with the orchestra must have been (even more!) completely overwhelming for his early listeners, due to social, cultural and spiritual reasons even beyond the musical ones. 

Of course, there were other aspects of Mahler's symphonies that could have overwhelmed his listeners at times – the juxtaposition of unearthly beauty with shrieking dissonances, terrifying brass, piercing woodwinds, grotesque fantasy, banal simplicity, lilting dance, gentle yearning, hymn-like chorales, deafening timpani rolls (creating the frightening effect of earthquakes or thunder "from below" rather than in the sky), giddy "klezmer-type" village segments, cymbals juxtaposed with tiny little "angle-bell" triangles... it's all there in this tremendous symphony. All of life is there, captured in sound fragments, like a revolving photo collage shared by very human musicians both on stage and behind the scenes, off stage.

And in a couple of those human moments, tonight's performance felt like it might become derailed despite the absolutely clear conducting. During the first off-stage brass segment, for example, a fairly rare tuning issue caught the on-stage orchestra players offguard. As sometimes happens, this caused the various sections playing the next few passages onstage to lose their confidence or concentration as well, and suddenly the ensemble got rather tentative. But overall, MTT's unique and over-arching interpretation came through loud and clear, not a single note was superfluous, Mahler's inspiring work was allowed to shine and this audience was the beneficiary.

The final few notes of the piece seemed oddly "tossed off" after all that ecstatic grandeur, but during the prolonged ovations I felt we were cheering more for Mahler himself as I remembered the glorious chords shared by the chorus, soloists and orchestra in a most definite triumph of music and spirit.  

***11