night at the San Francisco Symphony was going along just fine. The tuxedoed
and bejeweled crowd clearly was getting caught up in the perfumed delicacy
of the "Lullaby," the next-to-last movement of Stravinsky's Suite
from The Firebird, the final work on the program. Just as conductor
Michael Tilson Thomas was about to launch into the famous finale, sirens
started to wail and strobe lights flashed. A mechanical voice informed
the crowd that "a fire emergency" would require everyone to leave Davies
Thomas drooped his shoulders and turned forlornly to the audience. He
had the look of someone whose foreplay had been interrupted by a ringing
telephone. His theatrical urges had been pointing toward the whiz-bang
finale of the Stravinsky, but the musical part of the evening was over
just before the climax.
audience filed out and headed toward the several opening-night fêtes.
Out on Franklin Avenue, the horn section was gathered together, still
holding their instruments. "I thought I smelled smoke," said one. "I
heard it was a bomb threat," said another. Police set up roadblocks
to divert traffic and firefighters arrived, sirens skirling.
turned out to be a false alarm, but the program ended just as it was
coming together. The first half had been a bit of a rough go. The opening
piece, Tchaikovsky's Coronation March, was long on bluster and
short on refinement. The featured work, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto
No. 1, found pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Tilson Thomas differing
significantly on rhythmic articulation. Tilson Thomas gave it a very
Russian inflection. Thibaudet made it all sound bland.
guess the pianist was going for a sense of lightness, a strange approach
for this live-wire concerto. He played the opening chords with flourishes
as he released the keys, which gave them an almost dance-like feel,
hardly the portent we are used to hearing. It continued throughout the
first movement, the big octave runs slurring under a heavy pedal, the
real Russian dance gestures slipping by without apparent accents. In
the slow movement, the opening section had a sense of calm, and Thibaudet's
gentle articulation had a sense of seduction. But when the faster figures
emerged further in, it was hard to discern whether they were triplets
or some other indistinct rhythm. In the finale, the Russian dances again
Tilson Thomas had the orchestra soldiering on, trying to gain some purchase
on the rhythms that might lift the performance into something special.
It never happened.
intermission, the conductor inserted a moment of levity, opening the
second half with an orchestral movement from an obscure piece by a little
known Soviet composer. With its insistent factory sounds, it sounded
like an excerpt from the soundtrack of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." After
that, Stravinsky's whispering introduction to the Firebird sounded
performance went up from there. The musicians were clearly in their
element. The "Round Dance" was especially beguiling, the woodwind soloists
distinguishing themselves as they passed the melody amongst themselves,
the strings offering a delicate carpet of sound underneath. The "Infernal
Dance," a favorite encore for the conductor and this orchestra, embodied
all the pinpoint rhythmic articulation and clear brass sonorities that
were missing in the first half. A pity we didn't hear the finale.
first month of the subscription season contains some equally colorful
music, however, with MTT leading Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade,
some unusual Strauss songs with Thomas Hampson and the Mahler Fourth
Symphony. There's also a Beethoven Fifth Symphony in there
somewhere. Based on their performance of the Stravinsky, the band seems
up to it.