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San Francisco Symphony: Slender Greek Maiden

Michael Tilson Thomas
The conductor walked on stage, a lean, dignified American gentleman with the buoyancy that also marked Bernstein, but an air of refinement substituting for ‘Lennie's’ New York grit. It was Michael Tilson Thomas – just as well known as “MTT” – who was about to lead the San Francisco Symphony in their 10th Washington performance for WPAS, opening the program at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall with the rarely heard Debussy work Jeux. He presides over an orchestra he has turned into what is now probably America’s most fine-tuned, polished band. The SFS runs like a well-oiled machine but its playing, even if not being the most emotional and rarely ‘down and dirty’ as some music demands on occasion, is never routine, always dedicated. That was also the impression they left in this all-European program. One can dislike MTT’s style of subtle understatement or smooth perfection (Chailly-like, at times), but one cannot say that the combination of conductor and orchestra could fail for lack of involvement. One wishes to be able to say that of more orchestras, visiting or not.

Debussy’s Jeux, elicited from the players with Tilson Thomas’ gentle and minimal, then gracefully energetic gestures, was a shimmering, extremely light, elfin-like work that, despite an initial Dukas flavor, possessed wings of silver, a shining halo around it. Perhaps the electric lighting of the tennis court which is this ballet's (to which we heard the score) setting contributed that element?

available at Amazon
M.Ravel, Piano Concertos,
J.Y.Thibaudet / C.Dutuoit / Montreal SO

available at Amazon
M.Ravel, Piano Concertos,
K.Zimerman / P.Boulez / Cleveland & LSO

For greatest possible contrast between this and another work from the ranks of French music from about the same time, Ravel’s Left Hand concerto would have been the best choice. Hearing the ‘regular’, G major concerto, however, delighted just as much. More closely related to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody in Blue than even most other Ravel works, this is clearly among the finest pieces of music in Ravel’s catalogue. The solo piano opening of the second movement (Adagio assai) alone deserves him a spot in the Great Composers pantheon… but then again, without the syncopated, spiked first movement, the slow movement would be lost and awkward. Busy-busy the last movement, the various reeds yelling about like New York newspaper boys: Extra! Extra! Just as the first movement opens a window to the second, the third looks back to the first. The soloist, substituting for soprano Celena Shafer (who would have performed Berg’s Lulu Suite), was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and this concerto is a hallmark of his. It does not demand depth or particular feeling or an intelligent, probing interpretation; it merely asks for fast fingers and a good touch of flamboyancy. Thibaudet has both in spades and knows how to work the concerto effectfully. The orchestra, a more than equal partner in this work, gave Thibaudet the possibility to shine in the first place: their refinement and spaciousness afforded him to tinkle away little notes with charming softness; the orchestra's soloists (flute, clarinet, et al.) matched the nominal soloist in their extensive, exposed passages.

After the French were finished, the German(ic)s took over (who says history doesn’t repeat itself…): Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10 first (apparently part of the next SFS live Mahler recording, hinting at MTT not going for one of the completions of the 10th in that set). It’s a work that has often fascinated conductors, and it has driven a market for musical speculations that offers no less than four (probably more) performing versions of the whole thing. I confess that in none of these versions (Cooke generally accepted as the standard; I prefer Barshai) this piece has ever made itself understood to me, I never really saw the door to the 20th century or modernism (or anything else) kicked open. What may have been missing was the live performance experience. Just from hearing the Adagio, the only echt-Mahler movement of the 10th, played so well, so refined and poised as did the SFS under MTT (that pair being easily the best current American Mahler combination – their excellent recordings giving proof; Ionarts has reviewed Sys. 2, 7, and 9 so far) was eye-opening.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Michael Tilson Thomas, Still at the Leading Edge (Washington Post, April 24)

Tim Smith, Tilson Thomas inspires magical moments in D.C. (Baltimore Sun, April 25)

This music is made of angular plates with clear lines, sharp corners, plenty definition… glass… – like one of those modern, radar-undetectable stealth-fighters or gunships, but in white. There is none of the sometimes sumptuously Baroque folksy-ballooning that turns his previous symphonies into bombastic, if awesome, works. We don’t know how Mahler would have revised, improved, reworked this movement (only that he would have done it, eternal tinkerer that he was) – perhaps trimmed more fat, still; link the long lines into a tighter structure. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the 10th, had Mahler finished it, would have stuck out of its musical time like a stiff tower piercing the surrounding landscape. No wonder at all that Schoenberg and his boys took many of their cues from Mahler. Another, more parallel influence on the latter was Debussy – and with Debussy, more precisely the earlier Jeux, Mahler’s Adagio had in common that it has an extremely (and surprisingly!) light, metallic sound. Only that the ‘game’ that Mahler would be playing had infinitely higher stakes. And where does the opening of the Adagio from the Bruckner 7th come from that is the Mahler-Adagio’s repeated motive? At another point – a little less than 20 minutes into the movement – Mahler sets a gate, dark, big, threatening, through which the future floods in, invariably. It’s a mark like the Eroica’s opening, infused with part Gate of Kiev, part hellfire. Just as soon Mahler goes on pretending that you had not just been looking straight into the abyss, the music is instantly innocent again – but now an innocence we no longer trust. The uncertain falling string figures just before the end hint at a mysterious but guessed-to-be-benign future into which Mahler drops us. If the successive movements would have supplied the answers to the allusions and questions of the Adagio remains in the realm of sweet speculation. Meanwhile we enjoy just the questions when asked so eloquently, so hauntingly.

Wagner parts Siegfried and Brünnhilde after just little over one act together – and the hero shippers down the Rhine to chez Gibichung. That trip is illustrated-orchestrated with – typically – most glorious music. The Wagner-uninitiated listener can take such orchestral splendor with ease: it is usually just the singing that initially turns them off. Although a few people left before Siegfried’s Rhine journey, new converts to Wagner’s music were probably won in the course of this impeccable performance. Once again the slender beauty and devotion to the music paid huge dividends. The crowd demanded more, still, and got it: “The Last Spring” by Grieg.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Angular plates, sharp corners, glass...great descriptives for the sound-world of the 10th and even makes me think of new associations: Messiaen's orchestral music, for instance (think about THAT).

Over time the simpler performing versions seem to hold up better (including Cooke and Barshai, whose excellent recording is top value). But as the entire work is complete in a linear (first-note-to-last) sense, it really should be heard that way. The finale's coda sheds entirely new light on Mahler's last period, both musically and psychologically.