Faced with ageing audiences, dwindling funding and slashed budgets, many fine orchestras feel besieged at home these days, let alone being able to embark on costly tours overseas – all the more reason why the San Francisco Symphony’s ambitious tour of six cities in Asia is a cause for celebration. The orchestra’s decision to include works by American composers who draw their inspiration from this part of the world is a masterstroke of cultural diplomacy.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas

Henry Dixon Cowell and Lou Harrison, according to MTT (as Michael Tilson Thomas is endearingly known) were natives of San Francisco. They were good friends, briefly studied together and shared a passion for the music of Asia. In fact, Harrison was a virtuoso on such instruments as the erhu and gamelan. Theirs may not be household names, but their musical achievements, especially their effort in bridging musical understanding between East and West, are nonetheless impressive. Cowell claimed 1,000 works to his credit and is often remembered as a champion of tone clusters. Although both his Music 1957, written for Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), and Harrison’s Family of the Court from his Pacifika Rondo draw heavily from Asian musical traditions, they differ in tone, mood and character.

The singular focus of Family of the Court is regality. The ponderous rhythm that underpins the weighty melody is characteristic of a royal procession, with a lone flute providing occasional relief from solemnity. Sometimes bordering on irreverence, Cowell’s Music 1957 surveys emotional expressions ranging from exuberant vivacity to demure introspection with the help of traditional Chinese motifs and pointed percussion. In both, the San Francisco Symphony excelled in bringing out the unique colour and timbre of the “Asian sound”.

The beginning of the 20th century was a time of change for Mahler. After experiencing severe haemorrhaging that brought him, in the words of his doctor, within an hour of death, he moved into a new lakeside summer home. As work progressed on a new symphony, he married Alma Schindler, a composer in her own right and quite beautiful. His Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor is said to be semi-autobiographical, in that the gamut of emotions it presents seem to mirror his real-life experiences during that time. The three parts of the symphony, made up each of the two inner and outer movements and a Scherzo in between, depict hope and rejuvenation through love that follow the anxiety and horror of anticipating death. This structural scheme was clear in the San Francisco Symphony’s performance on Friday, with hardly a pause between the first and last two movements.

The opening movement, a funeral march announced by a lone trumpet, did not sound as ominous and heart-rending as I expected despite the blaring brass and convulsive strings. It was as if MTT was deliberately lightening his touch to spare us the dread. The ebb and flow of the weltering and lustrous strings had me lunging forward in my seat. The woodwinds were superb in delivering a palpable sense of horror in the second movement, in which alternating strings and brass were broken periodically by moments of quiet contemplation. Hope, in the guise of a chorale, made a dash to break through the clouds of doom, without success.

The horns were dazzling and right on cue in the Scherzo third movement, as the orchestra tip-toed its way through a delightfully bucolic and elegant contest between Ländler and waltz.

Every note in the renowned Adagietto fourth movement was painstakingly teased out and woven together into a plush duvet wrapping us in comfortable warmth. Said to be a love song dedicated to Alma, in the hands of MTT it was more restrained confession than schmaltzy declaration. I heaved a sigh of relief as it came to an end, the weight of love having become almost arduous. Assertions of hope sparkled with the help of chirpy woodwinds and uplifting horns in the Rondo-Finale, as lilting strings carried the movement forward to brassy triumph.

Mahler was quoted as saying after the first performance of the symphony: “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.” By avoiding histrionics and hyperbole a century later, MTT showed that he understood. He might have short-changed Mahler on intensity, but judging by their ecstatic applause the audience embraced his thoughtful approach wholeheartedly.