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S & H International Concert Review

Debussy & Mahler, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, March 24, 2004 (BJ)


Debussy, orch. Holloway: En Blanc et noir

Mahler: Symphony No. 5


Until the Kimmel Center opened in December 2001, Philadelphia audiences had few opportunities to hear orchestras from the outside world. Kimmel’s management, and specifically its artistic direction, now imaginatively handled by Mervon Mehta, is busily putting that right, and each season now sees a good assortment of visiting ensembles in its "Great Orchestras on Tour" series. Some of these engagements bring us vividly face to face with the excellences that exist elsewhere; others remind us equally forcefully how lucky we are with the orchestra we may call our own.

That this particular event fell into the latter category in no way negates the value of the enterprise as a whole. Comparisons may be odious, but in a world where the choice of what and whom to listen to is almost dauntingly varied, they are at once useful and mightily illuminating. For the first few minutes of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler Fifth Symphony, I thought this was going to be a fine performance. That little trumpet triplet in the eleventh measure–often an early indication of conductorial alertness or the lack of it–was properly hasty, as directed by the composer. The string textures of the first funeral-march theme was meticulously balanced, and cadence phrases were lovingly and suavely shaped. But that very suavity turned out to be a warning sign. As the evening wore on, Tilson Thomas’s reading proved expertly manicured and very little else. The lovingly shaped phrases grew increasingly wearisome, often slowing the proceedings to the point where one wondered whether the orchestra would ever get to the next note. There was no hint that this, like other Mahler symphonies, is a work that confronts cosmic issues. The grimmer passages were outwardly dramatic but inwardly empty. The great scherzo had sparkle but no real joy. We were afforded scarcely a hint of the gut-wrenching agonies or the spirit-lifting celebrations that marked the opening weeks of Eschenbach’s five-year Mahler cycle, inaugurated just last month. The overall effect was not helped by the fairly inevitable conclusion that the San Francisco Symphony is not remotely in the same class as our Philadelphians, with relatively lustre-less strings, and a timpanist who, in this of all works, either lacked dynamism or was not allowed by the conductor to exercise it. But such weaknesses need not be fatal, as anyone who ever heard some of Hans Rosbaud’s Mahler and Bruckner performances with orchestras of the second and even third rank will be aware. No, the trouble in the end is that, whereas Eschenbach is an inward conductor, a truly spiritual musician with the courage to risk anything in the cause of getting to the heart of the music he leads, Tilson Thomas has always been an outward one, and though there has been much talk lately of his maturation and artistic growth, I could only conclude on the evidence of this performance that he is still an ultimately shallow musician.

The evening had begun, not with the John Adams piece originally programmed, but with an orchestration by Robin Holloway of Debussy’s two-piano suite, En Blanc et noir. "One reason for orchestrating" the work, as Michael Steinberg’s characteristically excellent program note told us, "was to bring it to a wider audience"–a neat reversal of Liszt’s motives, a century and a half ago, in offering his public piano fantasies based on the operatic themes they were unlikely to have much chance of encountering in the theater. In addition to being one of the finest composers working in England today, Holloway (who was present to receive a warm ovation from the audience) is a musician of unusually broad sympathies and a deep understanding of the repertoire, and his orchestral treatment was expert. I did not feel, however, that the piece really worked in this guise, and the experience taught me much less about either Debussy or Holloway than the latter’s brilliant recent two-piano Gilded Goldbergs did about both Holloway and Bach. (There’s a fine recording of this inexhaustibly inventive piece available on the Hyperion label.)

Altogether, then, March 24 may not have ranked among Kimmel’s most memorable evenings. But there will be many occasions in the Center’s full schedule that provide greater rewards, and this one was as instructive for what it did not achieve as for what it did.

Bernard Jacobson




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