My parents’ old friend, the irrepressible Erich Leinsdorf, would have called tonight’s interpretation of Mahler’s 3rd in the Konzerthaus by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony “interesting.”  While it began with a thoughtful concept, ultimately it did not convince.

Tilson Thomas took the introduction to the first movement much more slowly than usual and with more trauma.  The percussion and double basses provided a broken heartbeat in the background, while the brass played bitterly, clearly shaped by Tilson Thomas’ motions.  This led into the march at normal speed, representing Summer marching in.  Tilson Thomas’ summer clearly was not the hot sunny type, but rather full of storms.  The percussion kept the underlying march going, while the winds held back otherworldly and detached above, so that while the feet marched the head filled with melancholy.

The first movement actually worked.  The problem came that Tilson Thomas did not know where to go from here.  The next movements developed along the same lines.  But the tutti playing became altogether gooey and sentimental, while the solo lines gave contrast with detached sadness.  In the end, the woodwinds simply could not keep up the pretense, and lost their angst without finding relief.  This left the concertmaster and the brass alone keeping the alternate mood going.

Mezzo soloist Sasha Cooke gave a strong and haunting account in the fourth and fifth movements, but Tilson Thomas completely buried the choral parts (sung by the women from the Vienna Singakademie and by the Vienna Choir Boys), blending their voices into, and under, the orchestral music.

For the final movement, perhaps Mahler’s most mystical adagio, Tilson Thomas once again resumed the extra-slow tempo.  In doing so, he gave the orchestra a shimmering icy sound more appropriate for Sibelius (like Mahler, also a fan of and inspired by Bruckner, although having a distinct sound).  After the first horn entrance in this movement, the tone reverted to something more Mahlerian, but here the gooey sentimentality of the orchestral playing made the music more sappy than transformative.  The orchestra also tired, as evidenced by some missed cues and wrong notes.  And if Tilson Thomas wanted to take it slowly, he should not have made the playing so staccato, which further demystified the music.

As a final nail, Tilson Thomas did not hold the silence at the end, bringing his arms down right as the last note ended, thus making contemplation impossible.  The Vienna public certainly knows not to applaud until the conductor releases, but in this case Tilson Thomas did not hold at all.  The applause came politely, with some well-deserved huzzahs for Cooke, the concert master, and the principal trombone, trumpet, and horn during their solo bows, but otherwise everyone else just received some polite clapping.

In the end, while Tilson Thomas can get credit for originality, he may not have thought this one all the way through.  Or maybe the enlarged forces of the San Francisco Symphony normally sound this gooey (if so, then Tilson Thomas should take the blame for that, too, since he has served as music director of this orchestra since 1995).

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