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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Copland, Prokofiev, Dvorak: Midori, violin, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 15 September, 2005 (HS)



Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 has many charms, among them great tunes, dance rhythms and colorful orchestrations. San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas captured all of that and maybe discovered a few new ones in a masterful performance that proved to be the highlight of a concert that, by all rights, should have centered on other matters.

After all, the concert's first half featured Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring in an orchestration for 13 musicians, and Tilson Thomas is known for his touch with Copland. The gentle ballet score, usually heard in truncated form and expanded orchestration, takes on added clarity in the sparser instrumentation, which was what Copland was after in the ballet's 1944 debut. The composer returned to that basic grouping for the 1970 version, played here. He also restored about three minutes of music from an excised scene. (These later concert versions also delete a few phrases only necessary for dance performance.)

The chamber-sized group devoted great care to the details of this work, and Tilson Thomas conducted with real grace and delicacy. So why didn't it come off as transcendent? Maybe it was niggling annoyances such as occasional intonation disagreements between the piano and flute, and a sense that the music was being carefully fitted into its place rather than flowing smoothly. You certainly couldn't blame clarinetist Paul Baez, whose pure sound produced sighs, or bassoonist Stephen Dibner, whose agile line gave wonderful forward motion to the livelier sections.

In the end, Copland's music seemed to come in and out of focus. When it was good, it was immensely satisfying, the fragile sonorities emphasizing the plain, homespun beauty. When it got fuzzy, it just seemed to lack weight.

There was certainly plenty of mass to the opener, Copland's famous Fanfare for the Common Man. Tilson Thomas took it at a stately tempo, the slower pace making it seem more self-important than it should. This is, after all, music for the "common" man, not a peer. The brass played with wonderfully mellow tone, a marvelous contrast to the crashing percussion.

After intermission, Midori brought her unique wiry sound to bear on Prokofiev's lyrical Violin Concerto No. 1. It's a measure of Midori's uncanny accuracy and innate musicality that she made us believe her steely tone was just the thing for this music. True, this concerto doesn't want the lush sound one might lavish on Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but one usually hears something a little higher-calorie.

Her sound aside, the performance had all the life one could demand. If anything, Tilson Thomas kept the orchestra a bit less exuberant than he might have preferred, with the result that this almost sounded like a chamber piece. Believe it or not, it works, especially in the more introspective, slower sections, even as the rhythms become more sprightly.

The Dvorak emerged as the true capstone of the concert when, right from the beginning, it was clear that the conductor and orchestra were on the same page in their approach to any given phrase. They lavished great warmth on every turn, every gesture, giving the three-dimensional music flesh and blood. The rhythms took on a graceful dance quality. The orchestral sound was as burnished as I have ever heard it.

The scherzo was a special delight. Alternating as it does between elegance and foot-stomping Czech dances, it's a challenge for a conductor to find a thread that ties it all together. This one did, and the results couldn't help but bring a smile. The intensity peaked in the finale, which started off with almost elfin grace and gradually took on added jet power right through the streamlined coda, which ended with just the right punch.



Harvey Steiman



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