The San Francisco Symphony under
its Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, brought two complementary
programmes of music for Londoners’ delectation. In the first two American
composers framed a Russian one; in the second, two Russians framed an
The first concert found the UK
première of a John Adams piece and Copland’s Third Symphony framing
the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, with Hilary Hahn doing the honours.
Adams and the SFS are locked into a 10-year commissioning project which
began in May 2001 which will include four new works, culminating with
a piece to celebrate the orchestra’s 100th season. The present
composition is the first of these.
The piece in question is called
Adams’ My Father Knew Charles Ives (which he didn’t, by the way).
The title actually refers to similarities between Adams’ and Ives’ background.
Like Ives, Adams’ father was an active amateur musician and Adams has
‘earthy’ memories of playing in the local band (bands were, of course,
a preoccupation of Ives’). My Father Knew Charles Ives is in
three movements. The first, ‘Concord’, has a surface reference to Ives
in its title (although this is not Concord, Mass.; rather Concord, New
Hampshire). It opens with frozen string chords, followed by a long and
angular trumpet solo (expertly realised here). It builds to a truly
Ivesian cacophony. ‘The lake’ is evocative sound painting, while the
final movement, ‘The Mountain’, returns to the frozen world of ‘Concord’,
rising this time to a piercing, high-pitched climax. A minimal amount
of minimalism helped enamour this piece to me, although I felt more
than a slight awareness of its length.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto came
as a reminder as to the effect real music of substance can have (it
felt like a San Franciscan reward for sitting through the Adams!). Hilary
Hahn was the valiant protagonist in a performance characterised first
and foremost by the orchestra’s spot-on rhythmic sense (especially in
the finale). The young Hahn has recorded this piece and so familiarity
is hardly a problem, and there was much to admire (characterful staccati
in the first Aria, warmth in the second). However, more body to her
lower register would have been welcome. The ‘circus’ humour in the first
movement was delightful. It just felt like Hahn was not quite underneath
Copland’s Third Symphony is a
powerful work (it includes a working-in of the Fanfare for the Common
Man in its finale). Here the San Franciscans, for the first time
in the evening, felt totally and utterly at home. The first movement
presents a spacious, lyrical outpouring and is archetypal Copland. The
orchestra revelled in the imaginative scoring (the unusual combination
of trombone and flute in the first movement worked marvellously). The
Fanfare emerged logically out of its surrounding musical materials,
as if the piece was ‘embracing’ the very concept of this music.
What makes Copland’s Third such
a great work is that the composer never shies away from complexities,
yet his compositional prowess is so far developed that the score is
at all points approachable. Of all the pieces played in this London
twofer, it is this Copland which was undeniably the highlight.
A significantly emptier hall greeted
the orchestra the next night. Maybe the (unexplained) substitution of
Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for the Manfred Symphony had something
to do with it …
A twenty-minute selection of excerpts
from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (not one of the Suites, rather
a group of movements which followed the action chronologically) provided
the highlight. The Introduction to Act 1 was a lyric flowering, with
violins super-glued together. It was lovely to hear the delicacy of
the Balcony Scene delivered so tellingly. In fact, this movement was
more impressive than the Dual, whatever the SFS’ undeniable virtuosity.
Michael Tilson Thomas is not well
known as a composer, and his Poems of Emily Dickinson (seven
of them) revealed him struggling to find his own voice. Neither his
nor Barbara Bonney’s dedication to the score was ever in doubt, but
Tilson Thomas’ language remains an indistinguishable hotchpotch of Americana.
Everything is (hardly surprisingly) expertly orchestrated, and there
is more than adequate contrast: the sleazily jazz-inflected ‘Fame’ provided
light relief. For the final poem, ‘Take All Away from Me’, the music
seemed to descend into film-musicy gestures, though. A pity, as there
was much to enjoy in Bonney’s delivery. Her pitching is miraculous,
and her ability to ‘float’ notes can surely touch the hardest of hearts.
So to Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral
Suite. If Gerald Larner in his programme notes was going too far in
saying, ‘To know Tchaikovsky you really need to know his orchestral
suites’, they remain eminently approachable works. The SFS played with
much elegance and charm, not to mention super-human unanimity. The warm,
undisturbed calm of the opening Elegy was probably the high point.
Throughout both concerts the SFS
played not only with the bright virtuosity associated with many American
orchestras, but also with a spirit of dedication which was a privilege
to see and hear. The encore of the ‘Infernal Dance’ from Stravinsky’s
Firebird was as virtuoso and exhilarating as one could wish.
They will be welcomed back with open arms. But can we have Manfred next