Something to listen to: Mahler – Symphony no. 1, MTT/SFSO

Michael Tilson Thomas

Am I the greatest Mahler interpreter alive...and maybe even dead?

A while back, I asked the question “Is MTT underrated?” and I’m pretty sure the answer was yes. With every open gig under the sun being snatched up by people not far removed from being carded for drinks and members of the “old guard” dropping like flies that have back problems or mysterious illnesses, Michael Tilson Thomas just keeps plugging away making great music in his little corner of the world. It seems impossible that someone who is Principal Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony, Founder of the New World Symphony, and the YouTube Symphony guy can seem overlooked, but somehow he is.

Back in the day, orchestras across America (and really Europe, too) were marriages between conductor and ensemble, and they cultivated sounds that were unique to their situation. The Chicago Symphony had the Reiner Sound, then they had the Solti sound (of course, they skip over the Jean Martinon era which in my opinion was the high point, but whatever). Szell created the Cleveland sound. Stokowski created the Philly sound, and Ormandy grew it. These types of relationships are few and far between now in the age of airplanes and the hegemony of a small handful of maestros, with 12-week seasons and short-term relationships the norm. This is why I love the Pittsburgh Symphony so much…they have a completely distinct sound (which really started in its current form under Lorin Maazel, flowered under Mariss Jansons, and has exploded like a supernova of exhibitionist fury under Manfred Honeck).

I’m not certain I would go quite that far with the San Francisco Symphony…do they have a “sound” outside of “Jesus, those guys are really fucking good?” I don’t know. What they do have is a magical symbiosis with their conductor, who has been there since 1995. There’s is a long-term partnership that seems to have worked where others have fizzled out, sort of the Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson of the orchestra world (in this analogy, the Chicago Symphony over the last decade is Jennifer Aniston, with Bernard Haitink as Vince Vaughn and Pierre Boulez as John Mayer…I wonder what “Your Body is a Wonderland” would sound like in dodecaphony). It’s just a perfect match. They’re at the point in their marriage where they know everything about each other, they finish each other’s sentences, they understand that the mood swings are temporary, all that.

And yet, it’s not as if Tilson Thomas maintains an old-school schedule like Szell or Ormandy; next season, the 100th anniversary of the SFSO, MTT will conduct 16 weeks out of 36 in the subscription series concerts. That’s probably a bit more than average relative to other orchestras of that caliber, but he still spends more time away then he does with his band. Whatever it is they’re doing, it works. This performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 is proof of that. The broadcast was taken from concerts in September 2009, and it is one of the most convincing performances of the First that I have heard.

Michael Tilson Thomas is, in my opinion, the best interpreter of Mahler alive (Haitink fans UNITE!). Like most Mahler fans, I would never really recommend getting one cycle of symphonies because of the different character of each, but the SFSO’s self-produced cycle would be the closest I would come. MTT is probably as close as we’re going to get another Leonard Bernstein; his conducting style is cut from the same cloth, if a bit more reserved (and much like Bernstein in the 50’s in New York, MTT, well…he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.). Mahler highlights the differences well: Thomas does not run interference on the score nearly as overtly as Bernstein, but he picks his spots to heighten the drama awfully well.

This reading of the First is an amazing display of conductor and orchestra being completely on the same page. Nuances are seamless, momentum is constant, and every detail that Thomas wants to extract gets extracted with dental school precision. Even if you don’t agree with the interpretive approach (and I don’t always…no exposition repeat in the first movement?), it’s a remarkably cohesive sound, and that in an of itself packs a lot of emotional punch and drama. Listen, for example, to the coda of the first movement, which sounds like a 58-year-old-woman-on-Botox’s forehead, almost uncomfortably tight and crisp.

To me what separates Thomas from other maestros when it comes to Mahler is his ability to integrate all the disparate musical elements into the same vision; this is not always easy to do (Rattle, another generally well-thought of Mahler interpreter, kinda sucks at it). The rollicking scherzo, the creepy klezmer band thing, the tender trio, the stormy beginning of the finale…it all flows naturally and comfortably, and with ideal tempo relationships to boot.

It wasn’t that long ago that Mahler was incredibly difficult to perform. The amount of inspired interpretations and deftly executed performances even 25-30 years ago were few and far between. Nowadays the number of orchestras and conductors that can handle this music is much higher, and continually increasing. But being awash in quality performances doesn’t make a reading like this stand out any less; if anything, it stands out more. This is a demonstration of a musical partnership in complete control of the material.


I was contacted by a member of the SFSO administration and informed that this performance is the basis for the upcoming “Keeping Score” installment on Mahler appearing on PBS and subsequent DVD release. It has therefore been removed from the RapidShare servers and this blog. I would, of course, recommend the hell out of getting the DVD.


7 thoughts on “Something to listen to: Mahler – Symphony no. 1, MTT/SFSO

  1. I admit I’m probably biased being a Beethoven lunatic, but until MTT does a full Beethoven cycle (or has he?) he doesn’t make the cut of “immortal conductors” for me. Of course Rattle doesn’t either and he did a cycle – but at least he tried…
    The other problem is that he’s American. If he changed his name to Tilson-Thomassini-Nokia, he would probably go up 5 notches right off the bat.

  2. In fact, Thomas used to be Thomashefsky. Funny to see someone go the other way.

    I don’t know if he has a Beethoven cycle or not, but my girlfriend actually saw him live with the Philly O doing the 7th in February and said it was a terrific performance.

  3. Oh yeah, I’m sure it was awesome, I have his Keeping Score DVD where he does a rip-roaring “Eroica”. I’m sure he’ll do a full cycle eventually… Levine was going to, but then got hit with the sore-back-itis thing you mentioned. Ozawa has probably had it, too. Karajan did FOUR Beethoven cycles. He gets into my “immortals” circle just based on points!

  4. How different is this from his recording of the piece–which I own but don’t consider my favorite. BTW, the SFSO CD of Appalachian Spring and Ives’ Holidays Symphony is outstanding!

  5. Its pretty similar to the recording from their cycle, but it has even more energy, IMO. The togetherness of the ensemble is remarkable.

    As I noted above, because this performance is being used for the Keeping Score doc, it has been removed.

  6. Thanks for the link, Gene. It really is a wonderful performance.

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