Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony spectacular in 20th century program
When Michael Tilson Thomas stepped out onto Carnegie Hall’s stage Friday night, he was greeted with the kind of welcome usually reserved in these parts for James Levine. His commitment to modern and contemporary music, and especially to American composers, and his Bernstein-esque ability to communicate even the most abstract concepts to the general listener, have won him fans everywhere.
As has his stewardship of the San Francisco Symphony, which years ago he transformed into one of the premiere American orchestras. Freed from the weight of East Coast traditions, this now may be the most “American” sounding orchestra, with myriad, sharply defined colors, precise technique, notable muscularity, and the musical breadth to excel at everything from Mahler to Mason Bates.
Friday night’s program put those virtues on splendid display. Opening with John Cage’s The Seasons, the orchestra supported cellist Gautier Capuçon in Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and in the second half played the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra.
There was a subtle logic to this collection. A program note pointed out that each of the pieces was made during a 15-year span, but the number itself was an arbitrary and meaningless key. More germane was where the span lay: 1945 to 1959. Coming immediately after thirty violent and destructive years, the period was a time of recovery, renewal, and transition.
The Seasons is from 1947, a transitional year when Cage was still shedding the standard classical aesthetic of personal expression, and was in the midst of experimenting with the prepared piano. He had not yet decided to remove his ego from his composing, and this ballet score written for Merce Cunningham is by turns extroverted, gentle, energetic, and playful.
Almost never heard in its orchestral version, the colors have Cage’s typical soft clarity, and the orchestra’s warm, agile playing made them flower. There was an evocative spaciousness in their sound, with the flute and muted trumpet seeming to come from a distant point. Cage’s profile remains forbidding on the classical music scene, and it was touching to hear a major orchestra play it with such care.
Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto came from the post-Stalin period of greater artistic freedoms in the Soviet Union. Both his cello concertos were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, a titan of classical music in the 20th century, and it takes some nerve for any other cellist to play these works. Capuçon had the nerve, and the musicianship to back it up.
His unusually grainy, mahogany sound made the first, strong impression, followed up by the abrading intensity of his playing. His long phrases were songful, and he pushed at the edge of what they could possibly express.
He was so intense that a gap opened up between him and the orchestra. The accompaniment and responses were lithe and colorful, but the San Francisco Symphony just could not match Capuçon’s fervor—probably no one could. This set the heroic concept of the Concerto into thrilling relief.
In the second movement he played Shostakovich’s subdued solo line with a haunted emotional ache, and his sliding notes and modulations of timbre created the paradoxical sensation of music striving to become articulated speech, but speech that could never make itself clear through anything other than sound.
This deep feeling continued through a gripping, mournful cadenza. The high-velocity finale was a return to, if not light, then determination.
The Concerto for Orchestra came from the last years of Bartók’s life, when he was impoverished and dying from leukemia. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned him to write a piece solely to aid Bartók financially. The finished version, from 1945, is one of the composer’s greatest accomplishments and the finest such concerto in the literature.
The concerto dazzles with possibilities. Tilson Thomas took the road less travelled, an objective, rather than atmospheric, view of the long, evocative introduction. The performance had a Classical emphasis on the counterpoint and polyphony.
This paid off two ways. First was the concerto qualities; each section stood slightly apart and above when they had the primary music. Woodwinds, especially the double-reeds, were full of brilliant colors, while the brass played with great presence, blend, and beauty of sound.
The second result was that, like a Mozart symphony, the structural elements came together to generate a forward momentum that grew and grew, until at the end the orchestra was playing with a furious joy. This was a spectacular performance, a display of the highest instrumental skill, energy, and musical expression, ranging from wry humor in the “Giucco delle Coppie” and Bartók’s fourth movement razzing of Shostakovich, the utterly gorgeous “Elegia,” and the paint-peeling finale.
Perhaps they were enjoying some giddy fatigue. Tilson Thomas took the microphone to interrupt the extended ovation and inform the audience that, due to bad weather, the orchestra hadn’t gotten to New York until after 4 a.m. Then he announced the encore: Henry Brant’s orchestration of “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata.
One was first stunned by the ambition, and then one was deeply affected by the glowing, tender, sympathetic performance. It was a reminder of how the conductor and musicians have a unique relationship to the music of Ives, and that when they play something from the father of American classical music they cut through the craggy obstreperousness to connect directly to his humanity and values.
The San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas play Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and the “Adagio” from Symphony No. 10, 8 p.m. Saturday. carnegiehall.org