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The Triumph of Ambiguity

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/14/2013 -  & November 16, 2013 (Ann Arbor)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major

San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (Music Director and Conductor)

M. Tilson Thomas (© michaeltilsonthomas.com)

After hearing the first movement of Mahler’s ultimate symphony last night, I realized that the composer’s supposed quote when visiting Niagara Falls–”Now that is a fortissimo!”–was simplistic.

Listening to Michael Tilson Thomas conduct, it was more likely that Mahler thought to himself, “What have we here? Sprays and mists, molecules and atoms, bubbles and froth and vapor and spindrift, billions of gallons which can be separated into infinite particles yet each and every atom of energy propelled in the same forward motion.”

Mahler didn’t know the quantum paradox of waves and particles inhabiting the same sphere, but the relations in this opening movement are exactly that. Outside of Mahler’s purpose in this “death symphony” the relations of the instruments in the first movement are particles and waves of sound, a paradox of music which can actually hold. And while we all dream of becoming conductors, no music critic would ever take on the nightmare of this opening movement. You have to be either crazy–or Michael Tilson Thomas. Holding things together is one thing, turning this assemblage of trumpets and strings, funeral marches and verdant romantic tunes into a music is something else.

Perhaps the California Maestro, unlike his European peers, is incapable of giving the Ninth all the funereal effects it needs here. Nor, like Boulez and his cohorts, did he try to show the mathematics, the careful structure which musicologists love offering.

Instead, Mr. Tilson Thomas hurled his splendid orchestra at us. Yes, he is a most disciplined conductor (and a joy to watch dancing on the stage). But the opening Andante comodo was a surprise package. Having heard it innumerable times, I felt that the conductor last night was ready to astound us. Yes, that heartbeat was always present, but so were the heavenly harp-calls, the ugly trumpet snorts. And just as we last night were ready to resign ourselves to Mahler’s “death symphony” (he had been diagnosed with a heart condition months before), along came that urging, yearning, almost ecstatic major theme which belied the rest.

Ambiguity in everyday life is not a virtue. In poetry and in movements of this symphony, it jolts the brain, brings us new sensations which, if inexplicable, are rewarding. And somehow, always beautiful as well.

After this, it was clear sailing for Mr. Tilson Thomas, for he had the resources to whip his orchestra through the delightful vulgarity of the second movement (Mahler once asked Freud why he instinctively “spoiled” beauty with vulgarity) and the nastiness of the third movement.

Ninety minutes is a long time for a single symphony, and not always a heavenly length. But the half-dozen people who left Carnegie Hall missed a finale which gave the strings of the San Francisco Orchestra the opportunity to breathe, to create long long lines, to create an emotional intensity not with excess rubatos or special accents, but the majesty which could only be Mahler’s credo to an all too short life.

We all speak glibly about “Mahler conductors”, but essentially it means any experienced and great conductor who understands and communicates music per se. Amongst them, the eclectic Mr. Thomas, and the orchestra which he has molded for almost two decades of their 103-year-existence, can easily pass that test.

Thanks heavens there is no such thing as the “greatest” Mahler Ninth. But there are great ones, and I believe last night showed something noble and triumphal in composer, conductor and orchestra.

Harry Rolnick



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