MTT conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony, mezzo Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus
Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in D Minor, the most expansive of his ten symphonies, is a cosmological tour de force. Full of magic and mystery, it’s the musical journey of Nature coming to life, at first through flowers and animals and then on up to man, the angels and the love of God. This Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus in this rarely performed epic—in six movements grouped into two parts—which clocks in at roughly 90 minutes, earning it the distinction of the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. It almost goes without saying that MTT has sealed his reputation on Mahler. In 2001, SFS and MTT launched the Mahler Project and recorded the balance of Mahler’s major works for voices, chorus and orchestra picking up four Grammys in the process. The Symphony No. 3 and Kindertotenlieder recording won the 2004 Grammy for Best Classical Album. Of course, nothing compares to the magic of a live MTT/SFS Mahler performance. Whether it’s your first or 50th time, each performance reflects a constantly evolving understanding of the composer’s genius and complexities.
At Monday’s press conference announcing the 2014-15 season, Tilson Thomas, could not recall how many times SFS has played the work during his 19 year tenure as Music Director (3 times—1997, 2002 and 2011) but he did speak about the joys of revisiting Mahler— “I think of these pieces, these big symphonies, like the Mahler, are like National Parks that we love and we come back to. We all know the map of the park. I have the complete map and others on stage have the intricate trail maps of one path or another. But no matter how much you look at the map of that, when you are actually on the trail, it’s a different thing every time—the nature and character of the piece will vary according to where you are in your life and what you’ve experienced and with whom you are on the trail. Sometimes, you’ll stop and smell the mimosas and other times, you’ll press ahead to get to the view of the glacier.”
Mahler wrote his Third Symphony between 1893 and 96, when he was in his mid-thirties. When the German composer and conductor Bruno Walter, visited Mahler at his composing hut in Steinbach am Attersee, Austria (some twenty miles east of Salzburg), he wrote in his memoirs that he looked up at the sheer cliffs of the colossal Höllengebirge and Mahler told him “No need to look up there any more—that’s all been used up and set to music by me.” This immense rockface inspired the introductory theme of the first movement—a grand unison chant for eight horns evoking the primitive forces of nature. A offstage horn, also figures prominently in the third movement. Heard floating in the distance, a melancholy haunting solo imitating an old posthorn or valveless coach horn creates one of Mahler’s soulfully nostalgic moments.
Grammy winner, mezzo Sasha Cooke, was radiant as Mary last summer in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera. In the summer of 2013, she performed Mahler’s Second Symphony with MTT and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Her expressive and rich voice should be a good match for the dark fourth movement, a Nietzsche text that is sung against heavy strings. By contrast, the fifth movement is light and will feature the voice of angels—women of the SFS Chorus in three part chorus, joined later by the San Francisco Girls Chorus who enter creating lovely bell like noises and join in the exhortation “Liebe nur Gott”(“Only love God”). The symphony ends with an adagio, softly walking the edge of the sound and silence.
Cellist Margaret Tait (Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair) has been with SFS since 1974 and currently heads the SFS Players Committee. At Monday’s press conference, she said. “We in the orchestra have a deep pool of shared experience, of performing this repertoire on world stages. When we come to a piece again like the Mahler’s Third Symphony, we can enter the performance with a feeling of security, of asking ‘What can we bring to the work right now that is new and fresh?’ We rely on our deep knowledge of the piece and our understanding of it over years. This is the only time I’ve had a relationship with a music director that has lasted 20 years. The orchestra and MTT have been through a lot together and it’s been a wonderful journey for the orchestra. There’s a sense that what we do is deeply American and very adventuresome. ”
Details: “MTT Conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony” is Thursday (Feb 27) at 8PM; Saturday (March 1) at 8 PM and Sunday (March 2) at 2 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Tickets: $30 to $162; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000. For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org.
Getting to Davies: Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall. The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion around the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)
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