It is rare to hear a concert by the San Francisco Symphony that is not superb, gorgeous, interesting, entertaining. One can easily run out of fresh adjectives and re-use the same ones that are useful to describe the experience of a beautiful performance of beautiful music. The concert on March 24, 2018, however, soared into another realm. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the program of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) with violinist Gil Shaham as guest artist and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902). The performance surpassed any expectations.
Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is doubly tragic. Berg died the day before Christmas the year he wrote the concerto; the concerto was his last completed work. It was written to commemorate Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel, Mahler’s widow, and architect Walter Gropius. At age eighteen, Manon died from polio. Berg had known her since her childhood. He wrote “To the Memory of an Angel.” on the manuscript. He dedicated the work to Louis Krasner, a violinist based in Boston who had asked Berg early in 1935 to write a concerto for him. Krasner played the premiere, 1936, in Barcelona. The concerto sums up the passages of the life lost so young. It has two two-part movements. The first is Andante-Allegretto; the second Allegro-Adagio. The Andante has an ethereal, daydreaming atmosphere: a girl watching clouds scud through the sky. The Allegretto is playful and dancing. In the last part, the drama of the girl almost growing up and then twisted with pain grabs the listener physically just below the ribs. The structure of the music in the Adagio refers to a chorale of the Lutheran church that prays “It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You.” The terror of Manon and for her; the need for resignation in the face of inevitable death; the struggle of life to remain alive is reenacted in the soloist striving over the other strings. In the end, the solo violin seems to resolve the pain. There can be acceptance and a fitting harmony with loss.
Gil Shaham is an extraordinary violinist. His gifts are of the heart as well as in his hands. He plays with verve and power and also tenderness and anguish. His presence as a performer lights up all of Davies Hall.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 travels from sounds of a funeral to renewal of life. There is so much variety of emotion, experience, exaltation on the way that the listener’s senses rocket from depths to heights and back again. Holding one’s breath, afraid to miss any single event in this music it is as though by living with the music one can experience multitudes of lives from the inside rather than from observation. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is justly renown for conducting, teaching, expanding Mahler’s audience. The SF Symphony met every challenge of the music and fulfilled their Maestro’s vision. This is the Mahler symphony with the Adagietto, now so famous that it is often played as a separate piece on classical radio. This quiet, very slow movement could be “Mahler’s heartache” as described by the late music writer, Michael Steinberg, or it could be the most purely sensuous classical music ever written. The symphony ends with raucous, joyful music shouting with exuberance. The listener lived in the music as Michael Tilson Thomas seems to have every phrase and its musical meaning in every cell of himself.
Conducting without a score, the Maestro reminded me of Charles Dickens traveling the world, taking all the parts to enact scenes from his novels. Now, imagine someone else, not the writer of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dickens’ Bleak House being able to recite and act the whole of one of those enormous books with nearly countless characters, events, plots, subplots, descriptions of landscapes and ballrooms. That’s what Michael Tilson Thomas does conducting Mahler. It was a transcendent performance.
Hedgehog Highlight on Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=669 Hedgehog Highlight on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1585
www.sfsymphony.com, gilshaham.com, michaeltilsonthomas.com
photo of Michael Tilson Thomas courtesy the San Francisco Symphony