The Music of Silence
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 9
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony celebrated the glorious, sublime and tragic universe of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on the 17th of January. I was so moved that I attended the same concert again, two nights later. The second time, they performed in architect Frank Gehry’s phenomenal new Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Oddly, the first concert was more striking, the audience more in awe. In its acoustic perfection, Disney Hall is unforgiving. Coughing becomes unbearable.
But both evenings were a revelation. As the musical press has widely reported, the great MTT- at the ripe young age of 60- has found his muse and his true home with the San Francisco Symphony. He has inspired, trained and shaped the orchestra for a decade now; conductor and musicians have grown together into greatness.
Traditionally, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been judged the best orchestra on the West Coast, and it probably still is. But the quality of performance has improved radically in California over the last decade. Excellence abounds and competition is fierce. Each of these two symphonies, Los Angeles and San Francisco, is now perfectly matched to its city, its concert hall and its conductor. Los Angeles can perhaps boast more rigor, depth, and virtuosity- and in its resplendent freshness, Disney Hall may be without peer. But San Francisco and MTT seem to play with one mind, filled with joy and the texture of silk.
In Mahler’s Ninth, the flawless ensemble and tremendous depth of sympathy that the conductor shared with his orchestra were stunning. The natural and spontaneous musicality and emotion of the performance brought to mind MTT’s friendship and association with Leonard Bernstein.
Last year at Davies Hall in San Francisco, I heard MTT conduct the symphony in Mahler 5, and was struck by his unexpected interpretation of the renowned Adagietto. I thought: this performance is unique, Mahler to its core, but unlike any Mahler I have ever heard. The deep, sad, fading emotion of Dirk Bogarde in Visconti’s Death in Venice was absent. Instead, there was a single, strong rhythmic musical pulse, filled with grace and resolve. The interpretation reminded me of Glenn Gould’s famous strategy in developing the performance in his second recording of the Goldberg Variations. MTT’s approach to Mahler almost seemed bereft of despair, held aloft in wonder and strength.
In MTT’s performances of Mahler 9, the music always breathes; the power is always there beneath it, supporting it, as breath from the diaphragm supports a singing voice. The electricity is always on, even when the sound itself stops. Even in those striking, absurd moments of silence in the 9th Symphony, when many performances grind to a halt, MTT’s music kept pulsing, even without sound. It is as if that remarkable arrhythmic heartbeat from the symphony’s opening measures, inspired by Beethoven’s Sonata “Les Adieux”, is still beating in silence, somehow beneath and beyond the music. The strings were impossibly consistent, performing a flawless “tutti pianissimo”, dropping imperceptibly off to nothing. When for a moment the instruments stopped entirely, MTT’s arms kept moving, sweeping in large arcs, conducting the music of silence.
While flawlessly balanced, MTT’s interpretation was not about architecture and proportion in the traditional musical sense, unlike like Zubin Mehta’s performance here with Los Angeles several years ago. It was as if a brilliant animal, wise and gifted, conducted the San Francisco Symphony, guiding with emotion and instinct, communicating without language. They let us see a new way for the music to reflect and penetrate the world, life, the human experience, the human condition. This style of music making goes beyond words, beyond that kind of intelligence.
It made me feel that Mahler’s music is somehow still playing, even now. The vision was so powerful, so distilled and focused; it achieved such clarity, that it went past the farthest edge of where it could be heard, into the silence itself.
Thomas Aujero Small