If Gustav Mahler had not come along to give artistic utterance to our contemporary dilemmas, we might have been forced to invent him.

What other composer so mirrors the anxieties of a world he left 87 years ago? What other musician so eloquently reflects the doubt and despair of a planet on the brink of the millennium?Since Mahler's death we've experienced two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the advent of Freudian psychology and other scientific theories that have nibbled away at our notion of free will. In that time, the composer's popularity has soared. His was music once deemed protracted, difficult, neurotic and not quite healthy, in keeping with the expressionist fervor sweeping the arts at the time.

Yet, the past 35 years have witnessed among American orchestras a frequency of performances of Mahler symphonies and song cycles that makes the previous 50 years' treatment seem inconsequential. Record companies now produce Mahler symphony cycles the way they used to dash off Beethoven Fifths.

The Symphony No. 5 was once an event. In 1998, it is not uncommon to find it programmed in the same community four or five times a season, by different orchestras - as much as, if not more than, Beethoven's "Eroica."

So, the San Francisco Symphony and its music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, did not risk alienating the paying customers when they launched their 17-day Mahler Celebration last week in Davies Symphony Hall.

Why audiences have fallen under the spell, despite Mahler's often mammoth structures, his dense counterpoint and his allusions to obscurities of Teutonic folklore, is simple. People love Mahler because he is "about something" and his music "goes somewhere." His symphonies trace an arc that always, even in the gentle Fourth Symphony, flirts with Armageddon.

Resolution means either cataclysmic breakdown (in the Sixth Symphony) or fusion with a vast humanist organism (the Eighth) or abnegation (the Ninth) or ironic, even hysterical triumph (the Fifth and Seventh). The search for secular spirituality - for communion with an enigmatic universe - is everywhere.

Perhaps, we love Mahler too much. Perhaps, we have made of him an auditory mood ring. Perhaps, we have imposed the values of our own age upon him to the extent of altering the shape of the music. The contemporary emphasis on "feelings" - ours, rather than the composer's - may have pushed us, listeners as well as interpreters, to sentimentalize and inflate Mahler, sometimes to the point of fulsomeness.