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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Concert Review: Providence, Prokofiev and Pirates

The San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Michael Tilson Thomas.
Photo © 2013 San Francisco Symphony.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra closed their two-night 2014 stand at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. The evening offered pretty much everything this ensemble does well. There was new music. There was a surprisingly gentle 20th century concerto. And there was an almost obligatory Big Work: the unexpurgated score of Maurice Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloë.

The concert opened with the delayed New York premiere of Samuel Carl Adams' Drift and Providence, a mixed-media composition in five movements. Mr. Adams' work incorporates a large percussion section, with early strikes from the performers recorded and collaged via live mixer into cascading blocks and washes of sound. This musique-concréte competes and even combines with the surges, polyrhythms and ostinatos played by the live orchestra.

Mr. Adams' piece spanned twenty minutes, yet sections of the work seemed to slow and even stop time. At intervals, the sound of cascading, remixed percussion would resound from the four speakers onstage, sounding like the toppling of a china cabinet in slowed motion. If the orchestra's growls, roared and droned, suggesting the washing of the sea, the electronically processed percussion sounds were mankind's unwanted refuse washing up on the beach.

The orchestra was then joined by Gil Shaham for a genial performance of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2. Mr. Shaham led the piece off with the slow, pensive theme, a late flowering of Russian romanticism answered by mutterings in the strings. The solo violin developed this theme and a second, richer anthem as the movement's material, with Mr. Tilson Thomas leading pared-down forces. With some lyric tone from Mr. Shaham and the cheerful accompaniment, the entire work having a feel of intimacy and shared secrets at odds with Prokofiev's reputation as a fierce, angry modernist.

The second, slow movement expands on the initial melodic material of the first. Mr. Shaham played slow flights over a stark countryside accompaniment of plucked strings and clarinet. The finale, with the addition of castanets (an indication of the composer's decision to premiere this work in Madrid) and bass drum urging the soloist mercilessly forward, was played with flash and style by Mr. Shaham, his violin line dipping and diving against the ever-increasing pressure of the orchestral tutti.

Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë was originally a ballet, but the work found its audience in the concert hall when the composer carved two Suites from a work that failed with the Parisian public. However, virtuoso conductors like Mr. Tilson Thomas often take advantage of the availability of a chorus to present the full work, indulging in an hour of lush orchestrak textures and lyric wind writing to create a theater of the mind for the modern listener.

The entire force of the San Francisco Symphony was joined by the New York Choral Society, adding robustness to key passages. The chorus' interventions coincide with the influence and appearance of Greek deities on the events of the ballet. The story itself is a pastorale, with a shepherd and his lover temporarily separated by the intervention of a a band of pirates with kidnapping and choreography on their minds. The real treat here was a long slow dive into Ravel's dim aural forest, with divided strings and a panlopy of woodwinds bringing a sense of peace and wonder to the score, before the brassy interventions moved the plot forward.

The battery and brass of the San Francisco players provided portraiture for this band of terpsichorean brigands, with Mr. Tilson Thomas achieving clarity and balance even in the score's loudest moments. The famous Sunrise, (a passage responsible for this work's evergreen popularity) elevated the energy level of listeners and performance,  This was a gorgeous and finely played performance of this challenging work, coming to a tumult with the last chords of Ravel's final Danse generale and Bacchanale.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.