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San Francisco Symphony Comes to Town

Michael Tilson Thomas
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

Online scores:
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto
Ravel, Valses nobles et sentimentales
Liszt, Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo
Since the last visit by the San Francisco Symphony to Washington, in 2006, Ionarts has kept up with the ensemble in a couple reviews, in 2008 with Alan Gilbert and in 2009 with Semyon Bychkov, and of course we have been following the orchestra's CD releases on their personal label. (Mahler's second symphony was the other program on their current American tour, most recently performed at Carnegie Hall.) By most critical accounts, the SFS is one of the top American orchestras, and their latest visit to the Kennedy Center, on Wednesday night, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society, showed why. Not least among those reasons was the programming of the group's conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who presented a widely acclaimed new work by composer Victor Kissine, as well as a little-known (but well worth knowing) symphonic poem by Liszt, along with two more commonly performed pieces that nonetheless provided thought-provoking parallels and comparison to the other two.

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Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto, C. Tetzlaff, RNO, K. Nagano
The other reason was the orchestra's playing, which was for the most part rarefied in tone, technically assured, and organically unified. The most noticeable problems came in the least satisfying piece of the evening, Tchaikovsky's epic violin concerto. Soloist Christian Tetzlaff had a particularly rocky first movement, his E string going raucously sharp for some reason, but Tilson Thomas's minimal style of gesture at the podium helped make the orchestra into a soft cushion underneath the solo, allowing Tetzlaff's big, luscious tone to be heard. A quick adjustment before the second movement solved most of Tetzlaff's intonation issues in the rest of the piece, allowing one to focus more on his striking technical mastery as he roared through the work's many demands with mercurial volubility. That unpredictable quality caused the ensemble unity with the orchestra to suffer, especially in the third movement, as Tetzlaff played very fast but not always evenly. Although his recording of the concerto for Pentatone has garnered some praise, it does not strike me as a work naturally matched to Tetzlaff, although he certainly has the chops to play it.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, San Francisco Symphony at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, March 26)

---, Anne Midgette interviews conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (Washington Post, March 21)

Philip Kennicott, Tilson Thomas at the Kennedy Center (Philip Kennicott, March 24)

Harry Rolnick, Eclectic And Electric (ConcertoNet, March 26)

David Patrick Stearns, Thomas shows mastery of Mahler (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25)

Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Symphony's Mahler (San Francisco Chronicle, March 13)

---, Symphony premieres musical essay (San Francisco Chronicle, March 6)

Richard Scheinin, San Francisco Symphony gives a stunning performance of Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony (San Jose Mercury News, March 12)

---, San Francisco Symphony debuts shimmering new work by Victor Kissine (San Jose Mercury News, March 6)

Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Symphony (Financial Times, March 10)

Cedric Westphal, SFist Interviews: Composer Victor Kissine (SFist, March 4)
The orchestra was at its most suave in an elegant performance of Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, ranging from a grand sweep, as in the first movement, to the sultry lilt of a perfumed salon, as in the second movement, never indulgent in too much distortion of the tempo but still lithe. The woodwinds, who had stood out in the Tchaikovsky with their gloomy sound in the second movement, continued to excel, helping to give a sense of lift and grace to the various dances. Tilson Thomas has made his own re-orchestration of Liszt's Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo, a work that was originally orchestrated by Joachim Raff, at a point early in Liszt's tenure at Weimar when he admitted he did not know all that much about orchestration, and then later revised by Liszt. Considering that Liszt more or less invented (pace César Franck) that very Romantic orchestra form, the symphonic poem, it is surprising that one rarely hears any of Liszt's symphonic poems in performance, with the possible exception of Les préludes. The resonance between Liszt and Wagner is striking, with a heroic brass section with chromatic rolling motifs reminiscent of Tannhäuser and a forlorn and beautifully played bass clarinet solo, sometimes accompanied with low horns and harp, that reminded one of Wagner's use of the instrument in his operas.

Victor Kissine, a Russian-born composer now residing in Belgium, describes his new work Post-Scriptum as "a variation on the theme of Ives's The Unanswered Question." The theme may come from Ives, but the piece evokes more the pointillism and Klangfarbenmelodie of Webern in many ways, a compendium of dissonant clusters and instrumental effects similar to what film composers borrowed from Bartók to depict scary scenes. The work opened in a serene mist of percussion, mute cymbal roll and shimmering tones from bowed xylophone, building up through washes of orchestral color, swelling and receding in Doppler-like effects. Kissine calls for a huge orchestra, with quite a workout given to the five percussionists, but also the harpists and pianist/celesta player: this huge canvas is then marked with a few bright, expressionist splashes of vivid color. In a way, later after the Ravel work, it seemed like a deconstruction of a piece like Ravel's waltzes, an etude in orchestral color, broken into its parts and reassembled in a Cubist collage. After such an innovative and unexpected program, it would have been crass to offer a traditional encore, but Tilson Thomas did no such thing, ending with the prelude to Delibes's ballet Sylvia, music for a chaste huntress that was dedicated by the conductor to "the brave women of the world." He did not have to mention that the story of that ballet comes from Aminta, a poem by none other than Torquato Tasso.

The final visiting orchestra to be brought to Washington by WPAS this season will be the Los Angeles Philharmonic (May 17, 8 pm), with their music director, Gustavo Dudamel.
[EDITED TO ADD: Actually, there are two more orchestras on the WPAS schedule: the Philadelphia Orchestra will also play in the Music Center at Strathmore (May 26, 7:30 pm).]

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