Stellar Mahler from the San Francisco Symphony in the first of 2 UMS performances

16143715-mmmainSusan Isaacs Nisbett
(Ann Arbor, Nov. 15, 2014)

It’s cold. It’s dark. The ground is a little icy from a slick of snow. It’s a good night to be moving toward the light.

Whether they knew it or not, that’s where patrons of the San Francisco Symphony’s first concert of two at Hill Auditorium were heading Thursday evening: out of darkness toward dawn and radiant day via Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, sometimes called “Song of the Night.” If any chance to hear this infrequently performed Mahler symphony in the flesh is worth venturing out for, this performance, presented under University Musical Society auspices, was spine-tingling enough, even in just its first moments, to make you grateful to have come. The evening was a reminder of the exalting power of live symphonic music.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco’s music director and conductor, has made the orchestra our go-to band for Mahler in his 20 years at the helm, and if he has rightly talked about the schizophrenic nature of the Seventh, he nonetheless can make it all cohere, make it into a grand narrative without negating what is genuinely disjunct in it.

That was the way it read on Thursday evening. The music had an almost visceral presence. When the tenor horn issued its call after a few shudders from the winds and strings to open the piece, the dark resonance was somehow physical and enormous, a giant shape materializing and rising up to command the stage. That might have been only the first of a number of moments where you could feel the tears starting, along with the shivers.

The first movement was wonderful for the dramatic sweep of the musical gestures, the panoramic generosity of both marches and lyrical moments. When Tilson Thomas let the strings luxuriate at the top of the phrase, it seemed an echo of the vistas of the sterner material. The colors were clear, brilliant. Like hearing in Technicolor. Fanfares, plangent and muted, recalled armies on the move; but there was light amid the darkness already at the start. We did not want for illumination, swept in with magic by the harps.

Atmospheric would be an understatement to describe the three central “night music” movements that followed and that were Mahler’s starting place in writing the Seventh. Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco players brought humor to the first “Nachtmusik” section: it was forest and hills alive, birds twittering, chattering, tittering, odd creatures indulging in hulking marches, cowbells echoing, cellos swinging along in a sort of tango polonaise. The second “Nachtmusik” movement, intimate and amoroso, was a different sort of night music, a chamber serenade with guitar and mandolin. The intervening scherzo was the shadow between, a movement that seemed on Thursday all elemental boiling up, a place where unformed matter became things.

And what can you say of that last joyous and triumphant movement Mahler wrote to crown the Seventh? On Thursday, it was resplendent, a pealing of all the bells of the city, cacophony as jubilation and discord made concord, with all the world ringing, ringing with light. The streets were still icy as we exited Hill, but somehow it no longer mattered.

And there’s more to look forward to: Friday evening’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Hill, an evening of contrasts between works rather than within one work. On the bill: Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” Ravel’s luminous “Daphnis and Chloe,” with singers from the UMS Choral Union participating; and Gil Shaham as violin soloist in the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2. For tickets: UMS, (734) 764-2538, ums.org.

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