This week’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall represents what’s described as “a meeting of three great musical minds” – those of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler. The program features Bernstein’s Symphony No 2, The Age of Anxiety – with guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet – and Mahler’s Symphony No 4, with guest soprano Susanna Phillips.
Both Bernstein and Mahler have had a significant impact on the life of Michael Tilson Thomas. He was just 13, he says, when “Mahler’s music reached and grabbed me”, the first time that he ever heard the last movement of Das Lied van der Erde. “I divide my life between before I heard that recording … and after I heard it,” he says. “The music made a stunning impression on me …… I could not believe that such symphonic music existed.”
MTT’s first meeting with Leonard Bernstein was in New York. Bernstein asked him to share with him his favorite moment in music, and Tilson Thomas obliged by playing Das Lied von der Erde. That was the catalyst for what was to become a lifelong friendship between the two musicians, both of whom discovered that they revered the work of the Austrian late-romantic composer. They worked together closely, and both made their mark as music educators.
Bernstein led a revival of Mahler’s music, which is credited with its popularity on the concert stage today, and Tilson Thomas is recognized as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of the works of Mahler. His work features largely in MTT ’s repertoire, and he and the San Francisco Symphony have won wide acclaim – and a total of seven Grammy Awards – for their recording of the complete Mahler Cycle of symphonies.
To complete the triangle, Tilson Thomas and the Symphony have also won international recognition for their interpretation of the music of Bernstein, including the 2013 performance of the first live concert performance of the complete score from West Side Story – the recording of which was nominated for a 2015 Grammy.
The Bernstein work which opens this week’s concert is his Symphony No 2 for Piano and Orchestra (after W H Auden), the Anglo-American poet who was regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Bernstein’s inspiration for his Second Symphony came from Auden’s poem, The Age of Anxiety, written between July 1944 and November 1946, which follows the thoughts and conversations of three men and a woman who have gravitated to a bar in New York during the latter part of World War II, as an antidote to their loneliness and boredom.
Bernstein wrote the Symphony for solo piano and orchestra, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet joins the San Francisco Symphony for this week’s performances. The extremely stylish M. Thibaudet has performed with the San Francisco Symphony almost every season since his debut here in 1994, which tells us something about how highly he’s rated by MTT and the Symphony, and he was one of five of the world’s greatest pianists invited to appear at MTT’s 70th Birthday Celebration in January this year.
Mahler wrote his Fourth Symphony between June 1899 and April 1901, although the final movement – a song with piano accompaniment – had been written 1892. It was based on the text of a Bavarian folk song with the enchanting title Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen (Heaven is Hung with Violins). Mahler led the first performance of the work on November 25, 1901, with the Kaim Orchestra of Munich, and soprano Margarete Michalek. Despite Mahler’s hopes that the symphony’s “transparency, relative brevity, and non-aggressive stance might win him new friends”, it was hated by the audience – and by audiences in most of the German cities where it was performed – apart from Stuttgart, apparently. Mahler made a number of revisions to the score, and the one which will be heard this week was published in 1963 by the International Gustav Mahler Society in Vienna.
Soprano Susanna Phillips, who performs in the final movement, received the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award in 2010, and in August the following year, Ms Phillips appeared on the opening night of the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, which was broadcast on the PBS program Live from Lincoln Center. Her first appearance with the San Francisco Symphony was on New Year’s Eve in 2012, and she made her subscription series debut in May last year, when she appeared in Fauré’s Requiem conducted by Charles Dutoit. Highlights of Ms Phillips’current season include her seventh consecutive season at the Met, starring as Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann – conducted by James Levine – and Musetta in La Bohème.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in Bernstein’s Symphony No 2 – The Age of Anxiety – and Mahler’s Symphony No 4 – with guest artists Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Susanna Phillips – at Davies Symphony Hall from May 7 to May 10. For performance times and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
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San Francisco Symphony program notes