San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas at Royal Festival Hall – Concord Sonata & Fantastic Symphony – St Lawrence Quartet plays John Adams’s Absolute Jest

Ives, orch. Henry Brant
Piano Sonata No.2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60 – III: The Alcotts
John Adams
Absolute Jest
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

St Lawrence Quartet [Geoff Nuttall & Mark Fewer (violins), Lesley Robertson (viola) & Christopher Costanza (cello)]

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 15 March, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photograph: www.michaeltilsonthomas.comOpening a weekend of Shell Classic International concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, the San Francisco Symphony brought welcome reminders of America’s musical tradition, from both its early years and its recent endeavours. The solitary slice of Charles Ives’s ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata was an apt reminder of the role in music-history of the maverick, the lone genius often barely understood in his or her own time; a fate shared by Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie fantastique stood at the other end of this programme.

It can seem as though the music of Ives has two strands – the naive, simple reflection of homespun values that plays on hymn tunes and community spirit, and the refracted, dazzling modernist experiments, which these days are more known about than heard. ‘The Alcotts’ (Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott), the third movement of his mighty ‘Concord’ Sonata, inhabits the cusp of these planes, and Henry Brant’s scoring (of the whole work), carefully matching examples found in Ives’s own orchestral works, heightens this twilight sense of possibility. Brant spent four decades orchestrating Ives’s 1915 piano score; now and then, his block-like treatment of instrumental groups underlines the chordal nature of Ives’s writing, but in orchestral garb the climaxes are broad and stirring, and emphasised by the solidity and precision of the SFS’s playing.

St Lawrence Quartet. Photograph: slsq.comSomething of Ives’s harmonic palette began to infect John Adams’s music in the 1990s, particularly the washes of languorous colour, and made a fitting partnership in this concert’s first half, not least for their shared interest in Beethoven, a subtext of Adams’s Absolute Jest. Written to commission from Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS, Absolute Jest pays homage to the later scherzos of Beethoven, particularly those found in the String Quartets and Symphonies. To this end, Absolute Jest places a string quartet at the heart of the orchestra, tasked with toying with familiar fragments of the master’s craft. Adams hints at a certain disappointment with the unfavourable reaction from critics who questioned his nerve at appropriating from the composer who sits at the highest table of our musical Olympus. “Why not?”, Adams asks, and he’s quite right – composers through the ages have done the same. The real question is one of success.

In truth, the opening of this 2010 work, which plays with the ‘Choral’ Symphony’s scherzo, is among the weaker moments, but once momentum has been achieved, it convinces. The title may hint at flippancy, but Adams takes this very seriously: the “jest” is a reminder that “scherzo” originated in “joke”; it also adds a layer of post-modernity by linking with David Foster Wallace’s epic novel, Infinite Jest, a text replete with reference piled upon reference. Above all, Adams’s affection for the pieces he appropriates shines through – perhaps it’s because I love it too, but I couldn’t help but be touched by the extended repetition of a particular motif from the scherzo of Opus 135, seized by the whole orchestra and turned around and around as though it could be suspended forever. In the St Lawrence Quartet, Adams had musicians committed to extending the spirit of the originals into a really invigorating world of musical fantasy.

The Berlioz ought to be the musical fantasy to end them all, particularly when the drugs kick in, but the SFS had a cooler view of this revolutionary piece. MTT’s way with the opening pages was measured – a little too measured – and the space showed up some lack of focus from the orchestra. Thereafter, the playing was consistently fine, beautifully balanced and rich, with the conductor taking care to pace and shape movements with delicacy. This was particularly true of the ‘Scène aux champs’, which rose to a convincing swell. But what is this music about? It’s about a young man close to being criminally-obsessed with a young woman and who drives him to narcotics. Viewed in those terms, Tilson Thomas’s direction viewed the emotional narrative at something of distance, as though it were a story too often travelled, to do so again. The finale, ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, raised the temperature close to boiling point, but it was by then a little late.

To round off, the SFS offered ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ from Rodeo, introduced touchingly by MTT as being “by our friend Aaron Copland.”

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