San Francisco Symphony in Carnegie Hall

Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Katia & Marielle Labèque (pianos)

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 25 September, 2008
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Michael Tilson ThomasMichael Tilson Thomas programmed three works that showcased the many virtues of the San Francisco Symphony in the second of a three-concert series ushering in the 2008-9 Carnegie Hall season.

The orchestral music of György Ligeti is being programmed with increasing frequency since his death just over two years ago. Lontano is the ‘quietest’ of his works for orchestra, and its carefully calculated balance and instrumental colors and timbres exact enormous demands on individual players and sections.

Tilson Thomas conducted about as transparent a performance of the work as one could wish for, conjuring widely varying sonorities that delineated the work’s rugged, unfolding structure in surprising ways — for example, the great tritone sonority near the center of the work emerged out of a mist of tone clusters, sounding almost like a cosmic hurdy-gurdy, and sectional sonorities that followed had more than a hint of Sibelius’s Tapiola and Symphony No.7, but conveyed in blossoming unisons rather than craggy, chromatic chords.

Katia & Marielle Labèque. Photograph: Brigeitte LacombeFrancis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, a pastiche of latter-day classical structure and Parisian post-war musical styles from jazz to salon to music-hall, provided a witty and animated contrast. The work was certainly not written with the rich acoustics of Carnegie Hall in mind, particularly the rapid-fire orchestral tuttis of the opening movement that at times threatened to (but never quite did) swallow the simultaneously elegant and virtuosic pianism of Katia and Marielle Labèque.

They clearly enjoy playing this work and convey the giddy joyride of the outer movements with a remarkable unity of focus, but also revel in the gentle, music-box-like sonorities that conclude the first movement and the Mozart-collides-with-modern melodies of the second movement. The tongue-firmly-in-cheek music of the third movement was especially effective, unfolding like comic clockwork and giving soloists and orchestra the opportunity to strut their stuff.

This is the sort of underexposed work that shows Tilson Thomas’s strengths: he conveyed not only the music’s requisite humor but showed complete control of the work’s balance and phrasing while maintaining requisite unity with the soloists. The Labèques followed up with Adolfo Berio’s daffy, comedic Polka.

The last photograph of ProkofievFollowing the intermission, Tilson Thomas conveyed the opening music of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5 with unexpectedly disjunct phrasing. The longer phrases that followed were at turns espressivo and emphatic, and Tilson Thomas introduced a number of unorthodox and sudden (but often effective) tempo shifts. Throughout the first movement, the orchestra’s playing emphasized beautiful sonorities, under-emphasizing the music’s sardonic stance and snarl, and the movement’s close glowed with a bit too satisfying a triumphal mood.

The main theme of the scherzo seemed more in line with Prokofiev’s idiom, brimming with nervous energy until the arrival of the second theme in the winds, which Tilson Tomas took at a far slower tempo than the usual consensus, and phrased oddly — as if sliced into four ample chunks. The collision of themes in the scherzo’s center chugged along like clockwork, and the slower section that follows, with the brass playing the main staccato theme in low registers, was unexpectedly balletic with a welcome hint of menace. The coda that builds up to the abrupt ending was as exciting and satisfying as I have heard.

The final two movements were a different story altogether in that the music never seemed to catch fire. The Adagio was played with warmth, particularly showcasing the rich sound of the SFS’s string section — but the dramatic build-ups just didn’t seem to convey any tension or catharsis. The finale sported excellent balances and particularly elegant playing from the winds, but didn’t really seem to gain momentum until the coda.

All in all, the symphony was a mixed bag — but the encore was a welcome delight. Tilson Thomas teased it by recalling banter among his fellow musicians about favorite “kitsch” pieces that everyone “knows” but whose title most people can’t remember (getting a good laugh after singing the final theme from Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’, leaving many in the audience guessing judging from the nervous laughter). He then delivered a spirited, grand-manner performance of a work that was also a show-stopper for one of his SFSO predecessors, Pierre Monteux: ‘Cortège de Bacchus’ from Delibes’s ballet Sylvia. Tilson Thomas and the terrific orchestra provided some of the strongest evidence I’ve heard in a long time that quality kitsch isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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