Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony provide dynamic advocacy for mixed “Mavericks’ program

Thu Mar 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a program of American music Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

When most orchestras go on tour, they usually bring a star soloist, along with a play-it-safe program of populist Late Romantic barn-burners, the better to ensure box office out of town.

Leave it to Michael Tilson Thomas to turn that tradition on its ear. In a concert Wednesday night at Symphony Center, Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a program of three works, all by American composers, including John Adams’ Absolute Jest, which had its world premiere in San Francisco just last week.

The current tour, which takes the orchestra to Carnegie Hall for two programs March 27-28, marks the centennial season of the West Coast ensemble. In a collegial musical exchange, several top American orchestras are visiting San Francisco this season for the occasion, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Riccardo Muti last month.

Now in his 16th season as San Francisco music director, Tilson Thomas—who is also artistic director of the New World Symphony academy in Miami Beach—is justly feted as one of our leading interpreters of Mahler, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.

But it is American music where the 66-year-old conductor had long made his mark. That consistent enthusiasm for unsung homegrown rep was clear Wednesday night with works by three “American Maverick” composers, echoing the title of the San Francisco orchestra’s acclaimed American music festival of a decade ago.

Henry Cowell has long been an MTT favorite and Cowell’s Synchrony led off the evening. The 1931 work was originally intended for Martha Graham’s dance company but the collaboration never came to fruition.

Understandably so, since how the heck could one dance to this music? Synchrony begins with a long, angular solo for muted trumpet, well played by principal Mark Inouye, followed by a tonally crunched variation for three piccolos. Undulating textures in the orchestra build to a strident climax yet a moody, enigmatic expression predominates. A jaunty percussion-led passage segues into another inexorable, craggy climax and after a reprise of the mysterious opening section, a coda with resounding cymbals and gong. Tough and iconoclastic, Synchrony is characteristic of Cowell’s rugged Americana, and the powerful performance set the evening off on the theme of rocky musical paths less taken.

A bay area resident, composer John Adams has enjoyed a long association with the San Francisco Symphony since the premiere of his Harmonium in 1981. (Tilson Thomas and the orchestra have recently released a new recording of Adams’ Harmonielehre on their own house label.)

Adams’ latest work, Absolute Jest, was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony for its 100th anniversary season. The title may be a spinoff of David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, yet the main inspiration for this 23-minute single movement for string quartet and orchestra hails from Beethoven. Most of the principal thematic material is drawn from Beethoven’s scherzos—literally “jokes,” hence the jesting title.

In his note on the new work, Adams said he was attracted to “the ecstatic energy of Beethoven,” which certainly came across in Wednesday’s dynamic, propulsive performance. It’s undeniable fun to engage in musical train-spotting as Beethoven’s themes fly past, are upended and reversed (from the Ninth Symphony, Waldstein sonata, late quartets in C-sharp minor, F major and B flat, and the Grosse Fuge among others). There is an infectious musical humor in this work as well as a when-worlds-collide quality with a few riffs thrown in from Adams’ own works including Grand Pianola Music and Shaker Loops.

Absolute Jest is cast in Adams’ most populist high-energy style, like a speeded-up tennis match with the batted Beethoveniana flying back and forth between the large orchestral forces and the hard-working members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Absolute Jest may well be the finest concerto for string quartet and orchestra ever written (Schoenberg, Walter Piston and Benjamin Lees are among the few composers who have attempted that genre). More broadly, the rock-edged bustle and quirky humor reflect MTT’s musical personality, the orchestra’s history with Adams’ music, and even the city by the bay itself with its celebrated history of uninhibited individuality and rambunctiously anarchic society, culture and politics.

Yet for all the whirlwind energy, contrapuntal ingenuity and scoring audacity, Absolute Jest makes one think, can a piece of music be too clever for its own good? As with Adams’ City Noir, Absolute Jest felt a bit padded at 23 minutes, and for all the roistering dynamism and whipcrack orchestration, there’s a certain sense of soulless calculation about the enterprise.

For such a new score, the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson Thomas delivered a bristling, full-tilt performance with the St. Lawrence String Quartet members tackling the music with striking fervor, particularly the alarmingly intense playing of first violinist Geoff Nuttall. The audience—boosted by highly vocal San Franciscans supporting their orchestra on tour—clearly enjoyed Adams’ new work, giving Absolute Jest a long and resounding ovation.

Tilson Thomas recorded a Charles Ives cycle including the complete symphonies with the Chicago Symphony in the 1980s for Sony. For the conductor, Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ sprawling Concord Piano Sonata, heard Wednesday night, makes a sort-of Ives’ “Fifth Symphony.”

Ives’ Concord Sonata is for many, one of his finest works, a bravura piano showpiece that effectively distills the cranky Yankee’s aching nostalgia, patriotic odes and jarring marches, suffused with the spiritual glow of New England transcendentalists like Thoreau and Hawthorne

At a 2009 Ives Festival in Miami Beach, Jeremy Denk performed the original keyboard version of the sonata, followed after intermission by Tilson Thomas leading the New World Symphony in Brant’s orchestration of the same work.

While Denk’s virtuosic performance was riveting, the Brant orchestration struck me then as bombastic and overblown, and Wednesday’s performance in Chicago left me with largely the same impression.

The greater space and more ample acoustic of Symphony Center made for less of a cochlea-damaging sonic assault in the first two movements than that experienced in the 600-seat Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach. And there are effective moments to be sure—largely in the more subdued third movement “The Alcotts,” with its spare-hymn-like string writing.

Still I found Brant’s symphonic retooling unsuccessful, with the heavy, over-scored orchestration burying the daring and originality of the original sonata under souped-up volume and gargantuan proportions.

Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony get props for sheer audacity, presenting such a bizarro piece as the main work of a touring program. The performance was well rehearsed and communicative with especially fine playing by trumpter Inouye and principal flute Tim Day.

Still, I wish that the conductor would return to Walter Piston and some of the mid-20th century composers he championed in his early days with the Boston Symphony. It is the neglected works of Piston, Paul Creston, Howard Hanson, Peter Mennin and, especially, David Diamond, that truly exemplify the American symphonic tradition, and it would be wonderful if Tilson Thomas and other podium colleagues began a serious effort to reintroduce those languishing works to American audiences.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony provide dynamic advocacy for mixed “Mavericks’ program”

  1. Posted Mar 23, 2012 at 6:15 am by Tod Verklarung

    I couldn’t agree more with the suggestion that the mid-20th century symphonic composers get some attention. Does anyone in Chicago even know who they are? The last CSO Music Director to give any of them serious time was Jean Martinon, who departed his post in 1968.

  2. Posted Mar 25, 2012 at 7:03 pm by Lester Monts

    Last night, the San Francisco Symphony ended a residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where they played three concerts, a point Mr. Lawrence failed to mention in his review. Let us not forget that, in addition to providing thrilling aesthetic experiences for concert-goers, MTT and the SFSO possess a commitment to music learning. Presenting the concerts on a campus that enrolls more than forty thousand students is a tribute to the work of the University Musical Society on behalf of a grateful and artistically savvy Ann Arbor audience.

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