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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.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Concert Review: Everybody Gets Ice Cream

The San Francisco Symphony opens Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Broadway soprano Audra McDonald lit up opening night at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Autumn de Wilde.
Opening night of Carnegie Hall is a little bit...different. Men's clothes are nattier. Women's necklines dip lower. The concert is shorter, minus the usual intermission. There's an  elegant rooftop dinner for heavy donors. And there's always an A-list special guest (or two), a star attraction that one wouldn't hear on the programs reserved for mere concert-going music enthusiasts.

This year, the orchestra was the San Francisco Symphony led by its longtime music director Michael Tilson Thomas. (Mr. Thomas is also one of this year's Carnegie Hall Perspectives artists.) On the program: a pair of evergreens by George Gershwin and an old favorite by Franz Liszt. The rest of the evening featured sung repertory performed by Broadway star Audra MacDonald and soprano Renée Fleming, who has recently left the operatic stage for the Great White Way.

The concert opened with Gershwin's Cuban Overture, a fiery piece with bright brass and percussion, evoking a time when the Caribbean isle was America's neighboring playground. The orchestra danced and twirled through the sophisticated rhythms, accented with a sense of rhythm that would have made less disciplined feet swirl and dance along. It was a strong opening.

Then, Ms. McDonald arrived onstage for the first selection, "Summertime" from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. She sang with power and a firm upper register, soaring through the notes without crooning them. The same cannot be said for Ms. Fleming, who followed with Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileras No. 5. She sang the opening vocalise with sweet tone and the middle section made smooth-running water of the Portuguese lyrics. However, the decision to hum reprise of the first part was a questionable one.

Next came Liszt's Mephisto Waltz. The piano work was played as an orchestral arrangement done by a long-serving member of the Symphony. It was introduced by Mr. Thomas as a particularly "dangerous" work. This performance however was not as advertised. The precise orchestration and many hands at work took the edge out of the music, and the use of grace noted in the harps to play the dizzying cadenza passages seemed almost quaint.

The best part of the evening came next. Ms. McDonald returned to sing the enchanting "Vanilla Ice Cream" from the Broadway musical She Loves Me. This was followed by Ms. Fleming singing "Fable" from A Light in the Piazza. Then, the two divas duetted on  a carefully arranged "mash-up" of Stephen Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" (from Into the Woods) and the searing "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from the Richard Rodgers classic South Pacific. Not on the program: Laura Nyro's "Save the Country", a scathing protest song with a direct political message for these troubled times. However, one wonders if the gala crowd was actually listening.

The concert ended with work that returns to "opening night gala" programs with the regularity of an unloved season: George Gershwin's An American in Paris. Although this imaginative tone poem is a masterpiece, it is performances like this one that undercut its reputation as a toe-tapping classic. Here though, the music seemed limp and leaden, the complex rhythms of Gershwin played dutifully but with little in the way of spirit or interest. It was the sound of a great orchestra on autopilot.

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