SAN FRANCISCO -- Mahler's Symphony No. 3 commands our attention. Don't tune out or you will miss something extraordinary: a vast upheaval in the orchestra that sounds like a cosmological event, or effects more quietly evocative of, say, a bird's morning chirrups as a forest comes to life.
Completed in 1899, Mahler's longest symphony (it lasts one hour and 40 minutes) was composed at his mountain lake retreat in Steinbach, Austria, where he tossed off a masterpiece each summer -- his way of relaxing after nine months of conducting in Hamburg or Vienna. Thursday at Davies Symphony Hall, there was no relaxing for the San Francisco Symphony as Michael Tilson Thomas led 105 instrumentalists and 119 choristers through a commanding performance of Symphony No. 3 in D minor. It was eloquent, sharp-focused and cinematic.
Mahler flipped back and forth over whether to offer listeners a guide to the third symphony's sequence of six movements: "What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me," "What the Angels Tell Me" and so on. Ultimately, he scrapped the titles, yet there's really no getting around the imagery. For instance, the first movement (which he once described as a "Bacchic procession") seems simultaneously to express euphoria and world-weary desperation, while evoking the creation of a vast landscape.
Thursday, that opening movement ("Part I" of the score) clocked in at 35 minutes, which is as long as Brahms's third symphony in its entirety. Tilson Thomas and his sharpshooters were on it: eruptions and prowlings of cellos and double basses; compressed quaverings of high strings, pitched tight as a tourniquet; Black Forest fanfares from the nine horns lining the mid-ranks of the orchestra over on the right.
It was a collective drama fortified by superb solo statements from trombonist Timothy Higgins, trumpeter Mark Inouye, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. It ebbed and flowed, of course; this is Mahler, moving his all-seeing eye from one miniepisode to the next. From the weird nature calls of the clarinets (their bells pointed up and over their music stands) to the enormous tutti awakenings and thunderclaps from the full orchestra, which at times generated a wavelike rhythmic effect that seemed to roll through the hall.
Leaning back on his heels, Tilson Thomas summoned the movement's knockout conclusion, fed by clarion brass and the battery of seven percussionists -- especially timpanists Alex Orfaly and John Burgardt, who seemed to be having an immensely great time.
Then came Part II, made up of the five remaining movements. The second movement, a minuet, is about the sound of the harp and the sweetness (quite sentimental) of the swooning violins. There was virtuoso sectional playing by the strings here: light, bounding pizzicato and cleanly bowed, windswept lines.
The third movement's centerpiece was the offstage solo by trumpeter Inouye. This so-called "posthorn" solo is like an extended Alpine folk song, set to a shiver of strings and then a mellow chorus of horns. Inouye's performance was clear and lovely; simple-sounding but hard to play.
And, ah, now it was time for soloist Sasha Cooke, the mezzo-soprano whose voice is like the "deep midnight" described in Nietzsche's verse about joys "deeper still than the heart's sorrows." Set by Mahler above a sustained pianissimo stillness through the orchestra, the song (which constitutes the fourth movement) seemed to emerge from the edge of sleep. Cooke was exquisite: dark pearl-tones and clear expressive diction.
The fifth movement delivered those angels, the 119 singers in the hall's terrace, about evenly divided between the San Francisco Girls Chorus and women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
They sang out: Bim! Bom! Bim! Bom!, and Mahler's children's song conveyed its innocence and devotion. Then it gave way to the finale, a 26-minute Adagio to be played "with great inner feeling throughout," the score instructs. And if there was occasional smudginess -- a blurred chord in the low brass or horns -- well, it was good to remember that this was a 100-minute performance that had quite miraculously transported us to Mahler's world.
Suffused with a melody that must be the inspiration for Sammy Fain's "I'll Be Seeing You," the finale escalated and dissolved, again and again, Mahler's way of giving us life and death through music. The big picture.
San Francisco Symphony
Performing Mahler's Symphony No. 3
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; with Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; the San Francisco Girls Chorus and women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus
When: 8 p.m. March 1, 2 p.m. March 2
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $35-$186; 415-864-6000,