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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Concert Review: They're Red-Eyed But Fearless

The San Francisco Symphony returns to New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony.
Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall.

The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is in his third decade at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, one of the longest and most consistent runs of a music director in a music business where maestros change podiums like NFL quarterbacks switching teams in free agency.

Mr. Thomas, (known universally in the music business as "MTT") brought his San Franciscans back to New York yesterday for the first of two Carnegie Hall concerts. Although stormy weather kept the California band from getting into New York until 4am, the musicians sounded fresh and tight, getting into a challenging program of Cage, Shostakovich and Béla Bartók. A second concert, featuring Mahler, is scheduled for tonight.

This performance opened with an early John Cage work. The Seasons dates from 1945, and thus is a more conventional composition, more music than artistic happening. "The Seasons"  Mr. Thomas treated it as such, delving into its gauzy, wispy fragments of sound and slashing chords of brass that attempt to capture the mood and spirit of the four seasons in a cyclical work that began where it left off and ended by starting over.

Next, the orchestra was joined by cellist Gautier Capuçon for the first Shostakovich concerto for that instrument. This piece is constructed around the familiar D-S-C-H thematic signature, scrambled and disguised and repeated in different iterations throughout the four movements. One may imagine the cellist as the individual (Shostakovich himself) against the systematic persistence of the orchestra. Although written in 1959, a time of relative political rehabilitation for the Soviet composer, the scars of Stalin are visible for all to see.

The first movement is quirky and nervous, jittering through the four-note motif before being answered by bone-rattling brass and relentless, staccato strings. The slow center is slower but still restless, creeping up on the listener and penetrating the imagination with shadows and fog  breaking free finally in a long, epic cadenza before the work sprints to the finish. Mr. Capuçon came back for a charming and technically brilliant encore: the "March of the Small Soldiers" from a series of Children's Pieces by Prokofiev.

Then, it was everybody's turn to be a virtuoso. Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is one of the most technically challenging and musically generous works of the 20th century. The five movements (three main ones and two intermezzi) allow all the personnel of a symphony orchestra a turn in the spotlight, from the contrabassoon to the first violin to the snare drum. Mr. Thomas and his players responded accordingly, delivering a brilliant reading that showed the very best of the San Francisco forces.

There was real affection for Bartók and his Concerto here, heard in  throaty trombone growls of the first intermezzo to the somber, elegaic writing in the central slow movement. The finale was a workshop in tempo and dynamic control, as Mr. Thomas and his forces hurtled toward the last, explosive bars. After a few words from the conductor, he offered a final encore: an orchestration of the gorgeous "Alcott" movement from Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, by the late American composer Henry Brant. This setting, introduced by Mr. Thomas as quintessential American music, underlined Ives' use of the "dah-dah-dah-DUM" rhythm from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as that familiar theme rang out in the brass.

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