As I have already observed, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will begin a six-city ten-concert Asian tour on November 7. They will be joined for the entire tour by pianist Yuja Wang. Last night in Davies Symphony Hall MTT presented the first of three concerts he prepared to preview the tour’s repertoire. Wang appeared as soloist for the first half in a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 “Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini.” Like the first half, the second half of the program offered only a single composition, Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony in C-sharp minor, basically an “encore” of the subscription performances given at the end of last month.
If Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto (Opus 18 in C minor) assured that he would be well received when he left Russia for the United States, Opus 43 quickly established his popular appear with American audiences, establishing “hit” status almost as soon as it was premiered. Adopted by “pops” concerts as well as the more “serious” concert offerings and frequently excerpted for “theme music,” it could well be the most-heard composition of the twentieth century. There is thus a good chance that almost everyone in Davies was there with some sense of familiarity.
Fortunately, both MTT and Wang made it a point to establish their performance as a significant listening experience, rather than falling back on that familiarity of “merely hearing.” The fact is that Opus 43 is so accessible that it is easy to overlook the sophistications that abound in the “deep structure” and their implications for all those surface features we know and love. Thus, while the eighteenth of the 24 variations on the theme seems to emerge as a thick layer of schmaltz to provide some quietude after an onslaught of aggressive variations, it is actually a clever inversion of the original theme (noted in Michael Steinberg’s notes for the program book). In a similar way Rachmaninoff contrived to use the “Dies irae” from the Gregorian plainchant setting of the Requiem text, as a cantus firmus above which the theme appears as an exercise in species counterpoint.
None of this sophistication should detract from the overall expressiveness of the score, but last night it seemed as if both MTT and Wang were mining new veins of that expressiveness. Wang was particularly sensitive to the breadth of dynamic range that Rachmaninoff required, often alternating between his almost violent bold strokes and lighter-touched delicacy as if she were turning on a dime. Through her hands one could almost believe that Rachmaninoff had negotiated the unfolding of his moods on a note-by-note basis.
For his part MTT made sure that his audience would appreciate Rachmaninoff for his uncanny sense of instrumentation as well as for his virtuosic demands on the pianist. By having the first and second violins face each other, MTT established a seating plan through which the orchestral accompaniment emerged as a spatial experience, rather simply as a “supporting role.” Indeed, Rachmaninoff showed as much virtuosity in how he would distribute melodic content across the instruments, often breaking it down into fragments in unexpected ways, leaving it to the conductor to restore unity from those fragments. MTT understood this process and presented it to the audience with dazzling clarity.
This raises the final virtue of last night’s performance. Because Rachmaninoff had so clearly shown that the orchestral score was as important as the piano solo, proper execution requires an impeccable sense of balance. Both MTT and Wang found that balance last night. Indeed, Wang always seemed to recognize when, in the grand scheme of things, her proper place was in the background, always finding the right level to provide context until it was time to take the foreground again.
Having established the full extent of the “listening substance” of Opus 43, MTT could allow us all an intermission break before taking on the Mahler fifth. This coupling will occur only twice during the Asian tour, in Taipei and Tokyo. Perhaps this was where MTT felt that his listeners would be most struck by the seemingly unlikely juxtaposition. Alternatively, he may have decided that these were venues where he could expect audiences with the necessary Mahler chops, capable of engaging them just as effectively while listening to Rachmaninoff.
Needless to say, MTT’s approach to balancing his resources for the Mahler fifth were as certain and powerfully expressive as ever. This was not just a matter of sorting out the complex levels of dynamics mapped across the full breadth of Mahler’s instrumentation. It also involved that critical element of pacing, sensitive to Mahler’s micro-level attention to tempo. Negotiating this triptych-organized five-movement symphony over a durational span of about 75 minutes (that “baseline duration” when the CD was first being developed) is no easy matter. However, MTT has such a sure internalization of how the logic of Mahler’s thematic language unfolds over this extended interval of time that he can conduct the work without a score.
The result was yet another reminder of how much Mahler had put into this symphony and how capable MTT can be in having the SFS lay it all out before us. Ironically, this is the symphony through which, in my own personal listening experiences, I first discovered Mahler. MTT has prepared an interpretation that may lead to many others in his audiences saying the same thing. Now MTT will take that “Mahler influence” to Asia; and, if that “Mahler discovery process” continues there, then so much the better for all involved.