Mahler at home and on the road

Tonight, at the San Francisco Symphony’s Bon Voyage Concert in Davies Hall, the program includes something familiar to local audiences: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Michael Tilson Thomas has conducted this great, dramatic work a number of times, most memorably at a sizzling performance in 1998.

He and the orchestra are taking the work on their European tour, performing it — after the 2010-11 season big opening gala on Tuesday — in Lucerne, Switzerland on Sept. 11 and in Turin, Italy on Sept. 16.

At the Lucerne Festival and elsewhere in Europe, Mahler’s music is being heard in great profusion. This year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth in the Czech town of Kaliste, and 2011 will mark the centenary of his death in Vienna.

Mahler’s popularity came long after his death, especially in the U.S. In this country, it has all to do with MTT’s mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Beginning in the 1950s, Bernstein presented pioneering performances of Mahler’s long, difficult symphonies, requiring huge musical forces, with the New York Philharmonic — the orchestra once headed by Mahler.

Bernstein recorded eight of the nine Mahler symphonies in 1960. Now, 50 years later, MTT has gone further. During his 15 years in San Francisco, he has conducted and recorded the entire Mahler cycle — nine symphonies, the unfinished No. 10, the symphony-all-but-in-name “Song of the Earth” and two orchestral song cycles.

Why the special connection with Mahler? MTT says, “The most extraordinary thing about Mahler’s work is that it just seems to come from nowhere. He was only 17 when he wrote the piano quartet, and you can already hear the kind of depression, melancholy, turbulence, yearning and a kind of odd, ungainly awkwardness that would be lifelong characteristics of his style.”

Today’s concert, and the program in Lucerne, also includes Aaron Copland’s seldom-performed 1924 Organ Symphony featuring soloist Paul Jacobs.

“Bon Voyage” is a bit of a misnomer because the orchestra won’t leave until after the opening gala. The minute that concert is over, a big, military-style operation begins to move the full orchestra and the instruments to Europe.

The working tour party of 132 — including 117 musicians plus staff, soloists and stage crew — flies directly to Switzerland, but the cargo schedule calls for packing from 11 p.m. Tuesday to 1 a.m. Wednesday. Instruments and wardrobe trunks will be trucked to Los Angeles, placed on pallets, flown to Luxembourg, then trucked to Lucerne.

The scheduled amount of time between the end of Tuesday’s performance to loading in the Lucerne concert hall for the first rehearsal is 3½ days, and not a minute longer, if all goes well. It usually does.


IF YOU GO

Bon Voyage Concert

Presented by the San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F
When: 8 p.m. today
Tickets: $15 to $70
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

artsClassical Music & OperaDanceentertainmentMichael Tilson ThomasSan Francisco Symphony

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