A time-tested `Resurrection'
S.F. SYMPHONY, CHORUS MAKE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC WITH MAHLER'S WORK
After Gustav Mahler's ``Resurrection'' Symphony received its premiere in 1895, Eduard Hanslick, the powerful Austrian music critic, said about the sprawling work: ``One of us must be mad -- and it's not me!''
It's still true that Mahler's movie-length symphony -- filled to the gills with hyper-emotion and super-heavy religious symbolism -- isn't for everyone. On the other hand, anyone who really cares about music would be sorely negligent -- I won't say ``mad'' -- not to attend one of this week's performances of the work by the San Francisco Symphony, the 200-voice San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. The conductor's ability to shape and draw meaning from Mahler's music is an ongoing phenomenon that we're lucky to be witnessing.
Friday's performance of Symphony No. 2 in C minor (the ``Resurrection's'' real name) at Davies Symphony Hall was many things: a spectacle; an inspired spiritual blowout; a live recording session (the orchestra is committing all of Mahler's symphonies live-to-disc for its SFS Media label); and a chance to hear two exquisite singers in solo roles.
One is mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who rendered the fourth movement's ``Urlicht'' song with such direct emotion that this quiet hymn to the ``Primal Light'' of redemption covered the hall like Gilead's balm. It's only five or six minutes long, but ``Urlicht'' is the heart of Mahler's multi-leveled symphony. Hearing it sung by this great artist is an event, reason enough to attend one of the 90-minute performances.
But only one reason.
Watching Tilson Thomas and the orchestra take on Mahler's entire cycle of symphonies has become an addictive treat over the past couple of years. Playing this music is hard, even exhausting. The ``Resurrection'' unfolds on a huge scale, traversing mountains and valleys of sound and emotion; the sheer scope of it is a bit ``mad.'' Yet every one of its thousands of notes is perfectly placed; each is a mini-event in the cosmic order of Mahler's musical treatise on eternal life.
Blending the micro and macro aspects is a daunting task. But Tilson Thomas possesses a thorough understanding of the music's structure and has the orchestra playing with concentration and energy. There are spry klezmer-like tunes and big gliding songs, fugues and great fizzes of notes from the strings and brass. Melodies pop up here, then there, then -- wait! -- over there, darting between instruments and sections. The overall effect is of storms gathering and dissipating; head-rattling crescendos evaporate into the soft ``ping'' of a harp.
Friday, Tilson Thomas delineated and shaped all of it with his wheeling and snapping gestures, cutting off massive outbursts like that so that silences rang out. As the final movement began, there were percussion crashes, quivering strings, pleading winds and bellowing brass fanfares. Offstage, more trumpets, horns and percussion issued ``calls'' to new life. Hunt Lieberson and Isabel Bayrakdarian, the young Canadian soprano, sang a passionate duet about vanquishing pain and death, the 200 voices joined in, and the whole heaving business came to an end amid pealing bells and thundering chords.
Madness? Maybe, but it's beautiful madness, music as a religious rite. Don't miss the last four performances.
San Francisco Symphony
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Featuring: Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Tickets: $35-$97. (415) 864-6000; www.sfsymphony.org