I have some churlish and generic complaints* about my experience at the San Francisco Symphony last Thursday, but none about their performance of the Mahler 3, which I found strange and marvelous. It was one of those performances that crystallize a piece; you may have heard it several times before, but there’s that one performance, usually live, where it all suddenly makes sense and you see the contours of a whole country laid out before you.
One particular part that really came together for me was a long horn solo played absolutely flawlessly by principal trumpet Mark Inouye, a long gleaming stretch made wistful and melancholy by its nobility and isolation, creating a sunset valley through the low murmur of the strings. That was one moment among many; I’ve occasionally felt bludgeoned by Tilson Thomas’s Mahler, but not this time. The loud impressive parts were loud and impressive, but also impressive were the diaphanous tootling and the scattered forest sounds and the distant marches and the sublime cry of mezzo Katarina Karneus (accompanied by the women of the SF Symphony Chorus and by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, who lent to my ears a bright and appropriate tinge of gentle mockery to the song of the rejoicing angels from Das Knaben Wunderhorn).
I don’t remember offhand if I have heard the piece live before (it was last performed by the SF Symphony in 2002; that is the version that was recorded and released along with the Kindertotenlieder). I have heard recordings more often that I thought; I would have guessed I had two or three, mostly in Mahler sets. It turns out I have at least eight. I really need to do something about the CD collection. I was pulling out recordings to check the timings. The program said the symphony would last approximately ninety-two minutes, but the performance lasted approximately thirty minutes longer than that. In case you’re wondering, none of the recordings, including the SF Symphony’s 2002 release, was as long as Thursday night’s performance; the only ones that even came close were still ten to fifteen minutes faster. Yet the tempo always felt right; it never felt as if the music was being taffy-pulled to ponderous effect, or stretched too thin for vitality.
As in some of Wagner’s operas where the exhaustion of physical endurance is part of the experience (for better or worse, for different listeners; some find themselves engaging with the music because of the physical pressures of sitting still and attentively for so long, and some despite those pressures, and some of course can just sit longer than others), the nearly two-hour performance did tax my ability to sit in the cramped seats of Davies Hall; the final slow music majestically unfurled its golden length before slowly ascending up and out, and my spirit was going with it but my aching legs and butt were holding me firmly on earth. It’s a small enough price to pay when you realize you’re hearing something astonishing.
When it was over the audience erupted in an enthusiastic ovation, which felt both entirely deserved and like an unneeded intrusion into the vibrant vibrating world that had just been summoned up before us.
* Churlish and generic complaints: It is absurd (from the standpoint of most working people) to begin a weeknight performance at 8:00; if there are only two people playing constantly with their programs for the length of the program in the entire front section (and there were), why do they always have to be right next to me; I don’t understand why the Symphony never uses surtitles for sung text (if they did that and killed the house lights, maybe the program-rustlers would have to find some other way to entertain themselves).