After a first evening fully dedicated to music written after 1940 – by Cage, Shostakovich and Bartók – Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony turned their attention, for their second performance at Carnegie Hall, to a major influence over the entire spectrum of music composed in the 20th century: the oeuvre of Gustav Mahler. Deciding to preface Mahler’s First Symphony with the Adagio from his Tenth, Tilson Thomas was able to fully demonstrate the unique character of Mahler’s output, its extraordinary consistency from his first major orchestral work to his very last.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

Before embarking on his musical journey, the conductor took a microphone and talked for a few minutes about the new spiritual beginning a completed Tenth might have become. He described his own recent experience visiting the Moss Temple in Kyoto and gracefully recited a few verses from Das Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours) by Mahler’s contemporary Rainer Maria Rilke: “I circle around God, the ancient tower, and have been circling for a thousand years, and still I do not know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a continuing great song?” … It was an unusual and thoughtful start for an evening filled with Mahler’s music and it made me think of some of the working titles – "What Humanity Tells Me", "What the Angels Tell Me", "What Love Tells Me" – the composer used for segments of his Third Symphony.

For many admirers of Mahler’s music, the slow movements are the most cherished of his achievements. Every single one has its own individual character. Meant to be the first segment of the Tenth Symphony, the Adagio, the only part Mahler completed, actually starts with sixteen bars marked Andante. Played by the violas alone, the music was heart wrenching as interpreted by the San Franciscans. The ensuing Adagio softly moves to larger and larger concentric circles, illuminating more and more remote harmonic regions. This sound tapestry was superbly woven by the strings with color accents provided by the solo horn and the woodwinds. There is only one major moment of distress – a terribly dissonant shriek uttered by the trumpets – announcing that the Zen garden like calm characterizing these thirty minutes of music might not be meant to last.

One can never wonder enough at the intensely personal statement that Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major represents. The music was certainly not born from the primordial chaos; there are lots of discernable influences. But, on the other side, the symphony includes, in nuce, everything we consider Mahlerian: dark phrases and passionate outbursts that alternate in sudden shifts of mood, folk inspired tunes and elements of Baroque polyphony, brass ensembles and peculiar percussion instruments, odes and satires.

Under the baton of their long-time music director, the San Franciscans offered an outstanding rendition from the beginning, when the strings played pianississimo, until the moment when the standing French horns voiced the final theme. There were fine individual contributions from the double bass solo enouncing the Bruder Martin theme in the third movement, from the oboe and clarinet in the development of the first, from the brass choirs.

In Langsam. Schleppend, Tilson Thomas kept a fine balance between the dominating pastoral invocations and an occasional pervading eeriness, full of dark undertones. He brought to the klezmer-inspired music all the experience accumulated in his genes. In the first three parts, the chosen tempi were always measured, with little perceptible accelerandos and ritardandos that made the orchestra “breathe” like a natural organism. Finally, in Stürmisch bewegt, the conductor fully brought to life the music’s grandeur and thrilling energy, balancing this time the visceral and the voluptuous.

Tilson Thomas is one of the few great Mahlerians active today. He has a deep understanding of this music and the creative process behind it. Occasionally, he has difficulties evading the shadow of Leonard Bernstein, his long-gone mentor. Trying to distance himself from the heart-on-sleeve approach to Mahler epitomised by Bernstein, he takes a cold, clinical approach as he partially did here in the Kräftig bewegt section. On other instances, he might fall for a “bring the big applause” style, extending too much a “significant” caesura or going over the board with the selected sonorities. It was a bit of the latter, one could perceive in the symphony’s last bars.