San Francisco Double Header – 9 & 10 May

My Father Knew Charles Ives [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto in D
Symphony No.3

Romeo & Juliet, Op.64 (selection)
Tilson Thomas
Poems of Emily Dickinson [UK premiere]
Suite No.3 in G, Op.55

Hilary Hahn (violin)

Barbara Bonney (soprano)

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 10 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Music Director in San Francisco since September 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas has a cultured orchestra (from its Herbert Blomstedt years) that may be a tad short on personality and not the last word in superhuman virtuosity, but is a model of lucid balances and pellucid textures. MTT brings a watchmaker’s precision to his task and consequently the odd little slip in ensemble is the more noticeable. Dynamically the SFS can go ’way down’; what’s even more gratifying is that there are not commensurate decibels in the other direction. Thus Copland’s Third Symphony closed the first concert more nobly than tub-thumping. In itself a pleasure if also slightly underwhelming.

Copland 3 is of its time, the last years of World War Two and ’new peace’, mirroring dark and optimistic periods. If it’s a masterpiece, it’s a flawed one, at its best in pastoral moments of reflection. Maybe the self-borrowing (in the Finale) of Fanfare for the Common Man leaves one feeling a little short-changed; albeit it was hardly known at the time, so one can hardly accuse Copland of jumping on its (much later) success; the symphony is never anything less than sincere and humanistic. MTT steered a thoughtful course through it, surprisingly moderate in the Scherzo, and drew much sensitive playing in moments of halcyon recollection. Eerily hushed string sounds caught the air in the ’Andantino’ third movement, music that reminds of the ’Adagio’ of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, played in Copland’s time (as today sometimes) as a separate movement.

Needless to say, the rhythmic authority and uninhibited sense of syncopation this music requires was duly delivered, if not the Bernstein-excised composer-accepted eight bars towards the close that Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop have been including in their performances; you miss the extra when its not there. The expert marshalling of his forces that MTT exhibited did bring a slight feel of contrivance, which was nothing to the plastered-on phrasal distortions that made the four movements of Romeo & Juliet sound artificially manufactured.

As it happens John Adams’s father didn’t know Charles Ives – but a title’s a title! In fact, Adams relates characteristics of Ives’s father to his own. Maybe in the last two movements of this 30-minute work (completed in March this year), Adams has composed some of his most personal music. It passed me by though: a first reaction is that a string of arabesques do not a movement make (The Lake) and that the inert and too long finale (The Mountain) is also too sectional. Both seemed remarkably short on ideas. The first movement suggested potential – Ivesian string clusters, a lonely trumpet solo that is pure Americana … then trombones march in. This movement – Concord (not of Ivesian connection but rather the small town in New Hampshire where Adams grew up) – becomes more and more Ivesian in its dislocation, clashes and quotes; this is cartoon-strip rather than Fourth of July; while Adams’s take-off is both clever and affectionate, with Ives being such a genuine one-off, there seems only room for him.

Stravinsky was one of the great musical ’magpies’. His Violin Concerto dines out on Bach – but it sounds 100% Stravinsky. Hilary Hahn was in sensational form. Without any need to indulge in Mutter- or Vengerov-like swoops and attacked accents, Hahn, radiating confidence, found the music’s straight line without losing any expression; her playing of ’Aria II’ touched the heart. The incisive accompaniment added to the pleasure.

And pleasure indeed with the remaining items. MTT’s settings of Emily Dickinson proved to be gems in the catalogue of American song. Here again, pace Adams, one can hear points of reference. MTT seems to recall a refrain from Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto or remembers Leonard Bernstein – a particular atmosphere from Arias and Barcarolles or through aping a little something from Songfest – and Copland in terms of simple expression. These songs draw the listener in, reference points noted but not a hindrance to absorption. Barbara Bonney was a vividly sympathetic interpreter of these sometimes surreal, often beautiful and always compelling songs. Now that the SFS has its own CD label, a recording of Poems of Emily Dickinson is much craved.

And on that CD please include Tchaikovsky’s delectable Third Suite – which needs more championing than the Mahler that is occupying the label at present – a work MTT clearly adores (he conducted it from memory). It’s a lovely score, Tchaikovsky unhindered by a ballet scenario or symphonic form conjures a feast of memorable ideas and colourful scoring that culminates in more familiar Theme and Variations, Tchaikovsky freewheeling along from fugue to polonaise via a miniature violin concerto, here suavely presented by Alexander Barantschik (ex-LSO leader and a familiar face to Barbican-concert attendees). If the polonaise attracted too many rallentandos and the Scherzo might have been even more elfin, what the hell – this was a treat!

Originally Tchaikovsky’s Manfred had been advertised. The Suite replaced it at the players’ request – a curious if reassuringly democratic reason. Certainly they bring true identification and real style to it – the music needs such advocacy.

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