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S & H International Concert Review

Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky: San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Davies Symphony Hall, September 3, 2003 (HS)


Opening 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 Symphony Hall.

Tilson 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.

The 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.

It 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.

I 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 lacked weight.

Meanwhile, 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.

After 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 especially ravishing.

The 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.

The 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.

Harvey Steiman



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