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
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
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.