Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, September 01, 2007

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas, Usher Hall 29 August 2007

I was looking forward to this concert for several reasons. I'd never seen Tilson Thomas before, though I have a lot of his recordings. I'd never heard John Adams' A Short Ride In A Fast Machine live. Tchaikovsky's First Symphony is one of my favourites. Oh, and they were doing Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man as well.

It didn't disappoint. MTT, rather to my surprise, is a fairly undemonstrative conductor (I'd rather expected a Bernsteinish adrenaline junkie) who can get impressive results with a small twitch of his baton. One of those conductors who uses his right hand for most things and would be minimally inconvenienced by having his left arm in a sling.

The first three pieces on the programme used different sections of the orchestra, so he grouped them together and took applause after the last one. First there was the Copland, beautifully played and with terrific crashes from the percussion (the timps were up on a platform which added to the resonance). Next, a rarity: the Andante For Strings by Ruth Crawford Seeger, arranged from her 1931 string quartet. Ruth Crawford Seeger turns out to have been the mother of Mike and Peggy, and the stepmother of Pete. Although she displayed very great talent early on, it was her marriage to Charles Seeger that brought her compositional career to an early end, not because of any sexism on his part, but because of his obsessive interest in traditional music of various kinds. He firmly believed that folk and ethnic music was of far more significance than art music, and Ruth simply went along with the project, changing from a composer to a collector and transcriber. The author of the programme note considers her to have been on a par with Sessions and Copland as a composer. On the basis of this single movement I would say that was an exaggeration, though the piece certainly wasn't devoid of interest, nor does it sound very dated.

Finally in this group we had the John Adams. Short Ride is described as a "Fanfare For Orchestra", and is certainly a popular showpiece. It starts with an "almost sadistic" metronomic tapping on a woodblock, with the rest of the orchestra gradually getting stuck in until the place is shaking. John Adams explains the piece thus: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?" There is certainly a feeling of clinging in terror to one's seat as the orchestra really gets wound up. (If you've never heard the piece, give it a whirl some time.) Anyway, the SFSO obviously enjoyed themselves, and MTT (who had given the piece its first performance 21 years ago) was in his element, controlling the deceptively complex cross-rhythms with his businesslike little strokes, interlaced with the odd horizontal sweep around 180 degrees when he really wanted to make a point.

Following a last-minute entrance by one of the horn players (who had maybe got lost backstage like Spinal Tap, and who came on to a cheer from the audience to which he returned a "what can you do?" shrug) the first half closed with Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, flamboyantly played (it's that kind of piece) by Yefim Bronfman. The solo part is hugely difficult, and like so much Prokofiev the piece is a mix of the clever and the tuneful. Not one of my favourite concertos, but this performance just about had me converted.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony "Winter Daydreams" ought to be far more popular than it is. Very Russian-sounding, very beautiful, very evocative. Actually, all the Tchaikovsky symphonies are worth hearing: there aren't any duds, which is more than you can say for Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak or even Mozart or Bruckner. Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler manage the trick as well, so he's in good company. It was interesting to hear MTT, whom I knew as an interpreter of American music and twentieth century music, doing core Romantic repertoire. He certainly coaxed some stunningly beautiful playing from the orchestra, whose woodwind and horns in particular took full advantage of the lovely stuff Tchaikovsky wrote for them. (There is a wonderful big tune for the massed horns in the slow movement, for example.)

All through the symphony I'd been wondering why there was a harp on stage, as it hadn't been played all evening. When I saw a harpist and three or four wind players slipping on during the appluase after the symphony, it became clear that an encore was about to occur; and it did. Bernstein's Candide overture was given the full Monty (or the full Lenny) and we all left smiling (and humming one of the twentieth century's more memorable tunes: DUM, diddle-iddle-iddle-um dum, DUM, diddle-iddle-iddle-dum, DUM, diddle-iddle-iddle-um dum, Dum dum de-iddle-iddle-iddle dum.......)

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