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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala: Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Yo Yo Ma, cello, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 7 September, 2005 (HS)



As opening-night galas go, this one had more meat and less frou-frou than most. It was a brilliant idea for the San Francisco Symphony to go all Russian. Even the virtuosic showpieces from such composers as Rimsky and Tchaikovsky have plenty of substance to match their orchestral colors. They show off much of what the musicians can do, and they are crowd pleasers.


Having a soloist the stature of Yo Yo Ma brought a significant luster to the proceedings. Ma's combination of technical accuracy and innate musicality speaks directly to an audience. It's as if he is holding a clear, perfectly polished lens up to the heart of the music. Nothing seems to get in the way.


Ma's work on the centerpiece of the concert, the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, began with almost a conversational quality. He tossed off the opening phrase offhandedly, investing it with just enough of a sardonic edge to make one sit up and pay attention. The ba-da-bump responses in the strings and woodwinds got the relentlessness of the tempo in place from the very first. Ma and Tilson Thomas just took off from there.


Tilson Thomas has proven himself a worthy interpreter of Shostakovich, which he only began programming here in the past several years. He gets the wit and the nasty edge without losing the music's beauty, and his feel for rhythm seems ideal for this composer. Ma sailed along with it, shading his cello's color and dynamics to give every phrase an extra dimension.


He consciously avoided making the slower second movement sound too polished, never yielding to the impulse to make it lovely. The movement built to a big climax, and the extended cadenza that followed (which Shostakovich lists as a separate movement) gave the impression he was finding his way even though every note is written out. The technical demands are enormous, with their double-, triple- and quadruple-stops (even in pizzicato). Ma's execution of phrases that soar into the cello's highest register is uncanny, unerring, as if being played on a violin.


The curt finale, which edges toward violence, seemed to accumulate power as it headed inexorably to the finish.


After intermission, Ma returned for Tchaikovsky's own orchestration for cello and strings of the Andante cantabile from his first string quartet. Any beginning music student knows this piece, arrangements having been made by others for every conceivable instrument, but this is the only version the composer himself produced other than the original string quartet. Ma emphasized the cantabile in the title, making his instrument sing like a lyric tenor. The simplicity of his approach and purity of his sound were the stuff of sighs. As in the Shostakovich, dynamic shading enhanced the effect. Tilson Thomas got the orchestra to provide a delicate nap of sound.


For a prepared encore, Ma partnered with concertmaster Alexander Barantchik in a charming traversal of the Pas de deux from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet.


On its own, the orchestra lent a high level of virtuosity to Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol and the evening's finale, Tchaikovsky's Marche Slav.  Especially impressive were Robert Ward's haunting horn solo in the Rimsky, some outstanding work by the flutes and piccolos in both works, and the remarkable unanimity of attack and dynamics by the brass in the march. The strings sounded muscular, with good, deep tone.


I kept wondering, however, if the entire orchestra had gotten on the same page in terms of rhythm. It wasn't off by much, but some sections occasionally seemed to start phrases a hair’s breath later than others. One of this orchestra's strengths is that unanimity of approach, and when it seems a bit off, it's noticeable.


That didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits, however. On balance the season is off to a strong start.



Harvey Steiman

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