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S & H International Concert Review

Prokofiev Concert, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, March 7, 2003 (HS)


Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco symphony are exploring some of the byways of Prokofiev's music this week, and as often happens in real life the byways are more exciting than the highways. An all-Prokofiev program, heard in its third subscription concert, included the glittery, jittery and popular piano concerto No. 3 in C major, played with Gallic panache, and not much else, by François-Frédéric Guy, and an eight-minute curio for 17 musicians, the American Overture (Op. 42), to open the proceedings.

But it's clear that Thomas and the orchestra put the greatest measure of their rehearsal time and energies into the thorny Symphony No. 3 in C minor, which occupied the second half of the program. It was only the second time the Symphony had scheduled the work -- the first was in 1961 under Enrique Jordá -- but, given the incendiary performance this time around, it won't be the last.

Prokofiev built the symphony recycled from his opera The Fiery Angel, which he felt free to do as it was never performed in his lifetime. There have been several stagings of the opera, including one by San Francisco Opera in 1994, and those who heard it then know how seamlessly the music makes the transition from the stage to the symphony hall.

Given Thomas' theatrical flair, it's not surprising how effectively he marshaled the huge orchestra, of Wagnerian dimensions, into a crisp and remarkably cogent whole. He drew colorful sonorities from all sections of the orchestra, alternately assaulting the ear with some of the composer's most raging dissonances and beguiling it with shimmering sounds that juxtapose unlikely combinations of instruments in the more lyrical sections. Throughout, he managed to capture the rhythmic vitality so critical to Prokofiev's music, right up to the thrilling crescendo and accelerando on the final pages.

The supernatural themes of the opera emerge strikingly in the slow movement, its eerie chorale punctuated by thumps in the woodwinds and percussion, and even more so in the scherzo, with its spectral string glissandos and general sense of being off balance. Prokofiev's music brims with rhythmic propulsiveness in the big outer movements, which, along with cannily juxtaposed lyrical sections, lends the whole piece a sense of proportion that the awkwardly structured opera never quite attains.

It all adds up to a journey that captures interest from the opening bars and, in these performances, never flags.

The same cannot be said of the utterly routine effort applied to the concerto. The workmanlike performance found Guy attempting to play Prokofiev's driving chords and crashing octaves with some delicacy. Maybe he was motivated by knowing that Prokofiev completed the concerto in France. But all this approach accomplished was to emasculate the underlying nastiness in the propulsive ostinatos and the render the whole thing much too genteel. What did he think this was, early Ravel? Even for Ravel, it would have been a wussy performance.

If the idea behind programming the American Overture was to contrast its relatively miniature forces and length against the broad canvas of the symphony, it didn't work except in retrospect. The performance seemed almost perfunctory, which, come to think of it, could be appropriate, given the history of the piece. Prokofiev was in the U.S. for a performance tour in 1925-26. The player piano company Aeolian Duo-Art commissioned the piece to open a new hall, fulfilling a contract left over from Prokofiev's brief residence in New York before he went on to France. The composer dashed off the music for two pianos, a celesta, two harps, percussion, a spare group of winds and three low strings, an unusual ensemble that, if nothing else, tuned the ear for Prokofiev's unique approach to orchestration that finally blossomed, at least in this concert, in an explosive performance of the third symphony.

Harvey Steiman




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