Mezzo Sasha Cooke finds transcendence in Mahler’s Third

Gustav Mahler called it his “monster,” a work so stunning in breadth, he believed “all nature becomes a voice and reveals profound mysteries, as one has perhaps surmised only in dreams.”

This week, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony perform Mahler’s Third Symphony in D minor, the longest work in the classical canon. At 90 minutes, the demanding piece is the least performed of the composer’s celebrated 10 symphonies.

“This work is a wonderful representation of human struggle,” guest vocalist, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke says. “And what I love is the move to a kind of redemptive transcendence. Mahler often felt apart from society, yet he had a way of unifying us through his music, calling out to humanity even in the opening lines of the solo movement ‘O mensch.’”

Regarded by many as the greatest conductor the world has ever produced, Mahler was proud of the Third, and ventured that one of the movements could have been called, “What God tells me.” While composing the work in 1895, he wrote to his romantic interest, “You cannot believe how this claims one’s entire being, and how one is often so deep in it, that for the outer world one is as if dead.”

One of MTT’s favorite artists, Cooke has a similarly positive feeling about The City’s top maestro: “I’m thrilled to be coming to San Francisco. Michael has a gift that encourages and compels musicians to bring their very best talents to the stage, and at times, I’ve seen him in a paternal light. He’s always at the service of the music, and because of his passion there’s a brilliance and youthful exuberance about his music making.”

Cooke, who juggles an international career with motherhood, has her own exuberance that fuels her artistry, and also tempers the benefits and difficulties of life on the road.

She says, “Being a mother informs the artist, and vice versa. The music business is difficult, and having a family reminds you of what really matters. Mahler’s music always feels like a coming home for me, and when you’re filled with inspiration singing, you can bring that home to your daughter.”

Married to American baritone Kelly Markgraf, Cooke says, “Our daughter travels with me a lot. She’s not yet 3, she can already name every orchestral instrument. She has beautiful pitch, sings herself to sleep, and already has 20 songs in her repertoire.”

With her ideal musical genes and such a vigorous start, it may be just a matter of time before the little one also graces the concert stage.


Mahler Symphony No. 3 with soloist Sasha Cooke

Presented by San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $42 to $186

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

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