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S & H International Concert Review

Brahms, Matthews: San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Vadim Repin, violin; Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, Oct 3, 2003 (HS)


"Brahms and Matthews would have had an interesting conversation," conductor Michael Tilson Thomas told a Davies Hall audience before the world premiere of the British composer's Reflected Images, commissioned by the symphony. "They both had a great interest in the music that preceded them," he noted. Brahms was fascinated with Bach and Mozart. Colin Matthews has been working on full orchestrations of Debussy's piano preludes, has added an extra Planet to Holst's famous collection and has arranged music by composers from Beethoven to Berg. Matthews was associate composer for the London Symphony Orchestra when Tilson Thomas was conducting it, which led to this commission.

The cross-century fantasy discussion might have been interesting, but unfortunately for Matthews his 13-minute work was sandwiched between Brahms' Tragic Overture and a luminous performance by Vadim Repin of Brahms' Violin Concerto. The towering majesty of this music made Matthews' piece seem almost trivial.

It's not a bad piece. It had some moments of fine craftsmanship, especially a rhythmically diffuse first section subtitled "waltz." There was about 15 seconds of actual waltz in it, the rest a quiet rustling that shifted ambiguously between three and four beats to the measure, the one-step-removed feeling reminiscent of Debussy or Ravel. The next section, meant to be a Mahler-like march heard from a distance, went by without much portent. A recitative-like section for strings promised something more than we got in the finale, which the composer subtitled "future movement." Ultimately the ambiguous harmonies left an unsettled impression. Maybe that's what Matthews intended, but in the context of two totally formed arcs of music by one of the giants of the 19th century, this 21st-century knickknack sort of hung up in the air like an abstract mobile in a room full of Rembrandts.

Maybe in another context, Relfected Images would have made a strong impression, but it followed a beautifully shaped, richly textured performance of the Tragic Overture. Everything about it was delicious. The way the strings, and then the winds, articulated the dotted-eighth figures was magical. Over a plush carpet of deep string sound, Tilson Thomas fashioned a sense of inexorable movement that kept the momentum through the final measures.

The concerto found Repin and Tilson Thomas in perfect synch, infusing the music with all the nobility and grace it needed to triumph. After a majestic orchestral introduction, Tilson Thomas seemed happy to let Repin carry the ball, and he did so with warmth and welcome clarity. There was no mannerism, no artifice in Repin's work. The cadenzas sparkled without becoming glitzy. The long arch of the slow movement spun out like a long silk scarf, the finale dancing like a butterfly, alighting gently at the end. Repin simply played the music with genial phrasing and fine articulation, and the results were immensely satisfying.

Harvey Steiman

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