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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Concert Review: Occasional Demons

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony return to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Michael Tilson Thomas.
Photo © 2016 San Francisco Symphony.
It didn't look like much on paper. On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Symphony opened a two night stand under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, currently in his 21st season as music director of the California orchestra. The program featured three lesser known works by Aaron Copland, paired with the Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann, a respected, if not universally loved example of early Romanticism.

What emerged on Wednesday night was the very best result from this longtime pairing of conductor and orchestra, balancing bold musical idea, stark modernism, jazz and romanticism in equal proportion. The orchestra sounded terrific throughout, with bright but never blaring brass, supple, nimble woodwinds and a string section that deserved praise for its complex, multifaceted performance. Also, Mr. Tilson Thomas took up the mic before each of the three Copland pieces, giving the audience valuable information points and insight into their creation.

The concert opened with the Orchestral Variations, an elaboration upon an earlier work for solo piano. Opening with a simple, memorable theme, Copland took that musical idea and put it through twenty variations of increasing complexity and musical rigor. Under Mr. Tilson Thomas, the music ebbed and flowed, with the momentum of a full symphony compressed into just 15 minutes. Audible throughout, that progression into bright major keys that is characteristic of much of this composer's work.

If the Orchestral Variations were complex, Inscape is downright forbidding. A late work, this is about as far from Appalachian Spring as you can get, with a single, slamming chord that is repeated. Mr. Tilson Thomas unpacked that chord, showing how it contained within its dense structure all that was needed for the remainder of the piece. This is a serial work ("eleven-tone", the composer quipped) that is wholly organized and carefully built, with real difficulties for its players. The San Francisco musicians responded to those difficulties with a performance that offered compelling argument for this little-played piece.

The orchestra was then joined by Inon Barnatan, the invigorating pianist who is currently in the middle of a three year association with the New York Philharmonic. Mr. Barnatan was tasked with the solo part in Copland's two-movement Piano Concerto, a work that dates from the composer's early obsession with jazz. Indeed, the piano part here incorporates rags and barrelhouse rhythms in its elaborate cadenzas, requiring a taut sense of rhythm in the left hand. Comping on the beat against the orchestra's responses, Mr. Barnatan moved smoothly into the swing of this piece, dueling with the saxophones in the orchestra and finishing the second movement with an outpouring of white-hot sound.

Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 2 is actually mis-numbered, being the third in order of composition. It is a chronicle of the composer's struggles with mental health, having some of the determination of Beethoven's great works. Its opening pages pit a rising figure in the horns against a slow, measured tread of strings in a slow introduction that gives way to a leaping Allegro. What was really heroic here though was the playing of the San Francisco Symphony, measured and precise and yet with the right rhythmic snap that this music needs.

The string section were the heroes of the second movement, a chivvying scherzo whose rhythmic requirement (a buzzing staccato figure) can send players into conniptions. Mr. Tilson Thomas' command here was absolute, as he steered the orchestra into the gentler but emotionally fraught waters of the Adagio, itself a portrait of the closing gray walls of depression. In the leaping finale, the composer's temporary triumph over his demons asserted itself at last. Mr. Tilson Thomas interrupted the crowd's standing ovation to offer a memorable encore: Solveig's Song from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt, an argument for a return to the music of that Norwegian master.

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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.