A conductor’s guided tour of planet Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas visits Mahler’s summer villa at Maiernigg in Austria. Michael Tilson Thomas visits Mahler’s summer villa at Maiernigg in Austria. (San Francisco Symphony)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 23, 2011

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The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has long been an impassioned exponent of the music of Mahler, and as recently as last summer, he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a memorable account of the composer’s “Resurrection’’ Symphony to open the Tanglewood season.

Thomas also has a natural gift as a teacher and popularizer in the Bernstein tradition of charismatic outreach. In recent years, he has turned his perch at the San Francisco Symphony into the headquarters of a wonderfully ambitious multiplatform education project called “Keeping Score,’’ essentially introducing newcomers to classical music through the lives and keystone works of individual composers.

Thomas’s musical investment in Mahler and his passion for outreach come together this week. Having already guided tours through the lands of of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Berlioz, Shostakovich, and Ives, Thomas has now arrived at the composer he calls “the central musical figure of my life.’’ The two “Keeping Score: Mahler’’ documentaries will air tonight and next Thursday on WGBH2 at 9 p.m. Each will be followed by a one-hour concert program with Mahler performances by the San Francisco Symphony.

At a time when serious classical music on public television has been in stark retreat, we can be very grateful for this series. The two programs provide one of the most user-friendly introductions you’ll find to the music and biography of Mahler. He is after all a composer who elicits a kind of rabid devotion in those who love him, and that very cult of Mahler may make it all the more daunting for a newcomer to find a starting point.

Thomas in these episodes is a welcoming guide, assuming zero previous knowledge and touching on many of the larger biographic themes while visiting key sites from the composer’s life in Central Europe and beyond. Throughout, the San Francisco Symphony functions as a kind of house band for the series, its musicians also speaking on camera.

Some of the more interesting scenes in the first episode focus on Mahler’s childhood in the Austro-Hungarian garrison town of Iglau, where his parents owned a tavern. We are given a tour of Mahler’s boyhood musical universe, from the square on which he heard military bands, to the streets on which he probably encountered itinerant folk musicians, to the wooded glades in which he first communed with the natural world so central to his later work.

Next week’s concluding episode hopscotches quickly from the period following the First Symphony through the end of Mahler’s life. In addition to some of the musical highlights from the symphonies, we are told of Mahler’s conducting career in Vienna and its second chapter in New York, with a final scene at the composer’s grave outside of Vienna.

The show’s central technique of mapping life onto art and vice versa works well for Mahler in particular, but it can also make for unusual weightings. The second episode’s discussion of the Ninth Symphony lavishes attention on its third movement because of the richness of the back story of this music as Mahler’s reply to his critics, while the massive and truly revolutionary first movement gets barely a mention.

More generally, I also wished that a bit more room was left for Thomas’s idiosyncratic personal voice, which seemed to come through more strongly in earlier series episodes. On the series website — — you can watch a colorful excerpt in which Thomas recalls the time he actually met the composer’s wife, Alma, as a 10-year-old boy in his godfather’s Los Angeles bookstore. That this briefest of recollections didn’t make the final cut tells you something about how the film was edited.

Speaking of the website, that’s where this series really soars, in this case encouraging a kind of self-guided play with the music and materials of Mahler’s life. It’s a great example of a big symphony orchestra embracing its public education mandate with new media tools.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

KEEPING SCORE: Mahler Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony

Two-part series begins tonight at 9 p.m. on WGBH2