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S & H Concert Review

San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas; Hilary Hahn (violin); Barbara Bonney (soprano). Barbican Hall, May 9th-10th, 2003 (CC)


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 American.

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 Stravinsky’s skin.

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 time, please?

Colin Clarke





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