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Kraft and Beethoven: David Herbert, timpani soloist; Twyla Robinson, soprano; Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, mezzo soprano; Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor; Raymond Aceto, bass; San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor; San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 10 June, 2005 (HS)



Michael Tilson Thomas opened his first subscription concert as music director of the San Francisco in September 1995 with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Before intermission came several choral settings of Civil War songs by Charles Ives. Those rugged songs had a remarkable impact on Beethoven's triumphal final symphony, in effect making Beethoven's already long, dark search for the light even more extended. By the time we got to the finale, we were all certainly ready for some brilliance, and the music delivered.


Closing out his 10th season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony with a very different approach to the same symphony, Tilson Thomas chose to precede it with a new work by Los Angeles composer William Kraft, a concerto for timpani featuring the orchestra's timpanist, David Herbert. No doubt the conductor was hoping for a similar effect. Kraft's concerto is raw-boned and rugged enough, and his tonal language is if anything even more dissonant than Ives'. On reflection it should not comes as too great a surprise that all that drumming seemed to inspire a more, well, percussive performance of the Ninth than anything I have heard, even surpassing work by original-instruments bands.


It made for a lively evening, even if it clipped some of the glory from the hoary old Ninth. At least it wasn't boring.


Kraft's piece, subtitled "Grand Encounter XIII," takes advantage of an innovative timpani set-up that extends the usual seven large kettledrums with an array of eight more smaller drums suspended from a rack at shoulder level. The smallest is tuned to A=440. From the audience they look for all the world like a pastry chef's rack of shiny copper egg white bowls. The idea is to give the timpanist more expressive possibilities for melodic variation.


Maybe someday someone will write a piece that really does allow these piccolo timpani to show what they can do. In this one we can see Herbert playing away on them, but for the most part Kraft's heavy orchestral textures simply overwhelm the sound. The few times we do hear the kettledrums emerge from the texture, when the dynamics get softer, darned if it isn't the same melodic pattern -- I hesitate to call it a melody -- or a modest variation on it.


This is strange on several counts. Kraft himself is a timpanist, having held the principal's chair in the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1970s and 1980s before he left to devote more time to composition. One would think he would strive to feature the instrument instead of relegating it to a secondary role for most of the 21-minute piece. And in fact that is what he did in his first timpani concerto, written in the 1990s. Herbert and the orchestra played it thrillingly in the 1999 season, which led to the orchestra commissioning this new concerto. At first Kraft was reluctant to go there again, but Herbert came up with the piccolo timpani array, and Kraft obliged.


The results suggest the composer's heart wasn't in it, after all. The piece begins with rhythmic crashing, the timpani supporting the loud, harsh dissonances, separated by silences, echoes and soft dissonant chords in the woodwinds or strings. The next few minutes finds the orchestra chugging ahead, mostly a loud thicket of sound. Toward the middle of the piece, things quiet down and the timpanist can show the range of all those kettledrums, but it doesn't last long before the orchestra comes crashing in again.


It's only 21 minutes, but it seems longer because it feels like the same crash bang boom again and again. Herbert obviously is working hard through all this. We can see him flailing about like an octopus, and occasionally hear some of the music he is trying to make, but in the end it comes off like a wall of noise. Rhythmic noise, but still...


Ironically, Herbert's deft touch showed even more prominently in the Beethoven, in which many of the timpani's utterances come in exposed moments. The opening of the Scherzo, for example, crackled with electricity, and even the gentle thrums under some of the phrases in the slow movement added an urgency that was doubtless more keenly felt because we were already so aware of the kettledrums.


Tilson Thomas favored fast tempos throughout the symphony, clocking it at barely over an hour. (Most Beethoven Ninths take 70-74 minutes.) This took away some of the magic from the opening measures, which also could have been played more softly. It definitely set a strong pulse from the beginning. There was much careful shaping of phrases and real dynamic contrast as well, but this performance was more about energy than subtleties.


The Scherzo was especially lively, the slow movement barely easing back, still showing a strong pulse as the broad melodies and harmonies spun themselves out. The stormy opening of the finale gave way to a recitative in the basses and cellos that hewed closely to the rhythmic values as written, taking none of the liberties so many conductors indulge in. Once the "ode to joy" melody started, with appropriately hushed dynamics, it almost sounded like a march. It had a staccato feel, a strong beat -- percussive. At first I found this off-putting, but after a few moments it felt refreshing. Of course, this also makes the Turkish band music with which Beethoven interrupts one of the variations and actually finishes the symphony with, right at home.


Raymond Aceto's big, rich, marvelously resonant bass brought vocal matters to a rousing start, enunciating with remarkably clarity and power. This was a well matched set of soloists, Twyla Robinson's creamy soprano rising to the heights as needed, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco's mezzo-soprano emerging from the texture with real richness and Anthony Dean Griffey's tenor providing the joyous lift in the high range that Beethoven must have heard in his head. I couldn't help noticing that they were all giving the music an extra stab of rhythmic thrust, echoing the percussive effect the orchestra had established.


So did the chorus, which provided the requisite lifting of spirits as the finale raced to its triumphant conclusion. This was not a Ninth for the ages by any stretch, but Tilson Thomas' quirky approach made it feel fresh. That is what one wants, isn't it?



Harvey Steiman




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