Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony do Copland (and Schumann) right

Thu Apr 14, 2016 at 10:37 am
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

On paper, the pairing of Aaron Copland and the San Francisco Symphony is ideal. Under music director Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra has staked a claim, verified in concert and through recordings, as the modern standard bearer for the composer.

And still the orchestra exceeded expectations Wednesday night, the first of two in a visit to Carnegie Hall, when they played three seldom-heard and superb works by Copland: the modernist Orchestral Variations and Inscape, and the jazzy Piano Concerto, with the sparkling young pianist Inon Barnatan as soloist.

The three compositions were signposts to some of Copland’s key developments as a composer, and the excellent musicianship by all delivered the consistency of the composer’s voice, even as his ideas changed.

While the Orchestral Variations dates from 1957, the underlying music is the 1930 Piano Variations, a masterpiece of American music. This work, and his Sextet (later orchestrated into the Short Symphony), is Copland at his most essential: granitic, confident, striding across an open landscape. Even though it came from the midst of the Great Depression, the piece is a component of the American modern sound: fast movement and communications, hood ornaments, skyscrapers, air travel.

The original piano piece is bright and cold as stainless steel, while the orchestration has a darker, deeper sound. All the drama and character of the original is made bigger and bolder.The playing by the San Francisco Symphony was tough and fine-edged, a blend of muscle and machinery. The musicians conveyed the full range of rich and varied feelings with massive impact, the floor frequently vibrating.

Inscape is one of the few works Copland wrote using the 12-tone technique. From 1967, toward the end of his productive career, it is even more introverted than the title—from Gerard Manley Hopkins—implies. Inscape is also a remarkably lyrical work, full of counterpoint and expressive gestures. It is as transparent as Webern, though on a more expansive scale.

The performance was extremely fine. The violins played with warm, precise intonation all evening, and here provided a lilt in the violins that brought out the songfulness in the piece.

Barnatan put across out all the jauntiness of the Piano Concerto, the feeling of a young man’s naïve but appealing brash confidence. Written in 1926, the concerto hails from a key period in American music when George Gershwin was composing masterpieces of jazz concert music and Louis Armstrong was transforming jazz into a soloist’s art.

The music is full of natural, soulful sounds of the blues, and lively, well-judged orchestral jazz. It’s a worthy peer to Rhapsody in Blue, darker and more intense, and equally well-made.

Barnatan played with a bright touch and delicious phrasing, leaving tiny bits of extra space that let the notes ring. His rhythmic sense for the music was excellent. Along with the orchestra, he brought out deep levels of burgeoning feeling and beauty in the first movement, and had the perfect, light touch in the finale.

After intermission, the San Francisco Symphony played the entirely unrelated Symphony No. 2 by Robert Schumann. This is Schumann’s most vital symphony, notable for its magnificent polyphonic opening and the lean, flowing writing throughout. The performance was simply thrilling–the strings playing with tremendous refinement and fleet energy, and Tilson Thomas shaping the dynamics and tempo changes in each movement to keep the musical and expressive tension mounting, finally to bloom in glorious climaxes.

Tiny stumbles in the rhythms of the second movement and a hint of mannerism in the sublime Adagio, were forgotten in the wake of the combination of technique and sympathetic understanding by Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco musicians.

The San Francisco Symphony performs Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von Der Erde, with Sasha Cooke and Simon O’Neill, 8 p.m. Thursday carnegiehall.org

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