The glory of Mahler beyond excess

Michael Tilson Thomas prevails. If he wants orgiastic music, he'll have it, no matter what.

MTT had paired the final scene from Richard Strauss' “Salome” with Mahler's Symphony No. 7 for the San Francisco Symphony's season-closing concert series that began Thursday.

Then soprano Lisa Gasteen canceled, and although MTT must have considered substituting the ever-loving “Dance of the Seven Veils,” he sat at the piano instead for the first half of the concert, offering a crisp performance of the Mozart Sonata in E minor, K.304, with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.

And then he brought the psychotic princess in her head-hunting frenzy into Davies Hall… throughout the Mahler's first movement. He turned the “Allegro risoluto ma non troppo” into something beyond mere passion; a heaven-storming, volcanic eruption the like of which I rarely encountered in many years of listening to Mahler performances.

Here, especially toward the end of movement, was Salome's ecstasy, overwhelming and overwhelmed, a musical orgy with wild outbursts, MTT conducting more forcibly than ever before _ and yet, the orchestra held together, strings producing a silky sound in perfect unison; woodwinds strong, heroic; the brass deliberately rough-edged, powerful.

MTT/SFS and the Mahler Seventh are old friends: two series of concerts, an award-winning recording, and they will be taking it on the road this summer (paired with the Ives Symphony No. 3), but Thursday night, familiarity bred only excellence, beyond all expectations. What was especially amazing about the first movement how every passage, every phrase received equal attention and clear expression. Not since the superbly controlled emotional explosion of San Francisco 's post-9/11 Mahler Symphony No. 5 was there such an evening as this.

“Nachtmusik” glowed, but the tension of the first movement persisted under the surface; the Scherzo was true to the “like a shadow” instruction, but bright and robust at the same time; and “Nachtmusik II” encompassed a whole universe of feelings _ lyrical, sad, tense, yearning.

Then the inevitable letdown arrived, the inchoate, tacked-on final movement, MTT and the orchestra doing their level best, but, as usual, one (well, this one, at least) wished for the performance to have ended before what Michael Steinberg has described “combining and recombining, shuffling and reshuffling.”

I doubt Thursday's performance, especially that first movement, can be replicated, but something wonderful may well be in the offing Friday and Saturday night, and at an added Sunday evening concert. For details, click here, or call (415) 864-6000.

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