Conductor: Michael Tilson-Thomas
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor
After enjoying Anne-Sophie Mutter and her young Mutter Virtuosi ensemble in Vivaldi's crowd-pleasing The Four Seasons on Tuesday night, I was back in the same spot of the Stern Auditorium for a very different program ‒ and with very different expectations ‒ 24 hours later. Although last season the striking musicians of the San Francisco Symphony caused the cancellation of their Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, it looked like they were going to make it this season for Mahler's lesser-known but no less appealing Symphony No. 7. Then I knew that the concert was definitely on when I received the customary phone message from Carnegie Hall reminding us of their late seating policy. Mahler is serious business over there.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphia Orchestra treated Carnegie Hall's packed audience to a magnificent Symphony No. 9 a couple of weeks ago, and on Wednesday night I sat down hoping for Michael Tilson-Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony to treat the less packed audience (But how do you compete with the Ninth?) to an equally magnificent Symphony No. 7, all the more since the tireless music director and conductor is widely recognized as a Mahler expert and the recordings he and the orchestra made of Mahler's symphonies are by and large considered classics of the genre. Bring it on, MTT!
All things considered, I would not quite qualify the performance I attended on Wednesday of "magnificent", but this assessment is essentially due to the symphony's inherently uneven nature, which strongly contrasts with its symmetrical structure, and not to a lack of efforts from the conductor and orchestra.
The first and last movements could not be more similar in length and more drastically opposite in mood. The seductive grandeur of the former was there, but not as commandingly sweeping as could have been expected; on the other hand, the sunny cheerfulness of the latter happily resounded in the entire hall, as if after many challenging twists and turns the musicians were finally letting their hair down, before concluding the frequently chaotic journey on a puzzlingly random note. Go figure.
The two "Nachtmusik" movements book-ending the central Scherzo came out satisfactorily atmospheric, even if they sometimes lacked a bit of cohesion. The first one was appropriately spooky and full of unexpected occurrences that may or may not happen during a midnight stroll, the second one quickly turned into a magical serenade, which included a lovely number for solo violin.
In the middle of it all, the infernal "shadowy" Scherzo proudly stood out as the darkest movement of the entire piece, a Viennese waltz that kept on taking the wrong turn, was going crazy, and sounded as if it was relishing every minute of it. More precise refinery than macabre grotesquerie, it ended up being the most fun and memorable episode of the whole evening.
Ultimately, no matter how you look at it, Mahler's Symphony No. 7 stubbornly remains a mysterious epic, and Wednesday's often exciting, occasionally inconsistent performance of it by the committed orchestra, dedicated conductor and uniformly strong soloists did not do anything to change this notion. It is a weird beast that shall not be easily tamed, but it is a good thing that brave souls keep on trying.