Conductor: Michael Tilson
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Sasha Cooke: Mezzo-Soprano
Simon O'Neill: Tenor
It is hard to turn down a date with the San Francisco Symphony and its peerless music director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas during their annual visit to Carnegie Hall. Since family obligations kept me away from their Copeland concert on Wednesday night, I decided to grab them while I still could and went to their more traditional program of Schubert's Unfinished and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde on Thursday night.
Although I am not the most die-hard Schubert fan in general, except for some of his dazzling chamber music compositions such as The Trout and the Quintet in C Major, I have to admit that his Unfinished symphony has been steadily growing on me. And when you have a crack ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony dive into it, the result can only be superb, like it was on Thursday night. The first movement was movingly dark and restless, the second and last movement brought a bit of serenity, although no true resolution decisively appeared yet. However, no matter what could have been, the strongly committed playing made the work feel whole and fully satisfying.
Inspired by Chinese poetry and written when Mahler was going through the most painful period of his life, Das Lied von der Erde cleverly mixes rowdy drinking songs and more introspective musings to come up with an unofficial symphonic outing. As performed by the San Francisco Symphony orchestra on Thursday, the music was earthy and refined. The exuberance of the three songs featuring New Zealander tenor Simon O'Neill led to the occasional balance problem when the instruments covered the voice, but he still managed to come through securely feisty most of the time. On the other hand, my long wait to hear much celebrated American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was gloriously rewarded by her impeccable performance. Her "Abschied" (Farewell), in particular, was absolutely magical and concluded the concert on an exquisitely ethereal note.