Webern, Stravinsky, Ives:
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor,
Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 14.4.2006 (HS)
Quick, if you were putting together a concert involving
the most telling music of Webern, Stravinsky and Ives,
three of the most distinctive voices of the early
20th century, what would you choose? Chances are it
wouldn't be the pieces on this program, the last subscription
concert before the orchestra takes it on tour to New
York this week (20 April at Carnegie Hall, to be precise).
Webern's music, after all, is known for brevity and
severity. The Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6,
which runs only 12 minutes, is positively prolix compared
with the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10,
which barely takes four. It also has actual emotional
programmatic content, described by the composer in
a note he wrote for a later concert. It's not the
totally abstract music we think of when we hear the
When he wrote Petrushka in 1911, Stravinsky
was already working on Rite of Spring, which
made its debut a year later and changed the face of
music forever with its dense, complex rhythms and
harmonies. Petrushka, however, is perky, hummable,
brimming with élan.
Ives, who wrote his music in relative obscurity during
his lifetime, started writing A Symphony: New England
Holidays in 1904, four years before he found his
true voice in The Unanswered Question and seven
years before he completed the Concord Sonata.
He finished the work in 1913, eight years before he
completed Three Places in New England, perhaps
the work for which he is best known (and for which
this almost seems like a prototype).
But Six Pieces, Petrushka and Holidays
do have something in common. Though they come relatively
early in these composers' oeuvres, they have all the
hallmarks of those aspects that made Webern, Stravinsky
and Ives indispensable creators of music. Six Pieces
displays Webern's penchant for soft dissonances, melodic
lines that skip widely and hardly ever repeat themselves.
Petrushka has its rumbling moments when a listener
tuning in at the moment might mistake it for portions
of the Rite, until it resolves into a sunnier
sequence. Stravinsky's trademark ostinatos are in
place, and so are all the revamped folk tunes. Ives'
fascination with reworking hymns and familiar tunes
provokes smiles in Holidays, and his freewheeling
bitonality rears up regularly. There's even a section
where two marches criss-cross each other.
Tilson Thomas and the orchestra brought out most clearly
in this performance the kaleidoscopic colors of these
works and the endlessly inventive instrumentations
these composers used.
The reading of the Webern lacked the lapidary precision
of a jewel turning in the light (my image of Webern's
best stuff), mainly due to uneven entrances and attacks.
But the sonorities came through with perfect intonation
and seamless sound, as in the marvelous moment in
IV when the piccolo, horn, clarinet and trumpet carry
a dirge-like tune against quietly thumping percussion
and the evanescent scree of high violins. The final
moment, with bells, celesta and harp fading into the
distance, was also magical.
The Stravinsky featured brilliant solo turns from
trumpeter Bill M. Williams, flutist Robin McKee, pianist
Robin Sutherland and hornist Robert Ward. There was
also a satisfying belch or two from contrabassoonist
Steven Braunstein. These individual moments carry
the show throughout most of Petrushka, but
the big tutti moments came off winningly as well.
Few conductors get the crescendo and psychological
rush of a Stravinsky ostinato better than Tilson Thomas.
This conductor also has a penchant for Ives, as previous
performances have proven regularly. He let the diorama
of Ives' messy, rambling work sprawl with all its
idiosyncrasies, staying, as actors like to say, "in
the moment," rather than trying to bring order
to the chaos. The result was 40 minutes or so of terrific
scene painting. This performance favored the quieter
details—the misty opening measures of Washington's
Birthday evoking a chill February morning, the
quiet resolution of strings playing a hymn at the
close of Decoration Day, the stately clang
of percussion against another hymn that ends the work.
The big moments roared to life, especially the clamor
of massed bands playing against each other in The
Fourth of July. If the swagger of "Turkey
in the Straw" barn dance in Thanksgiving
got a little raucous and messy, well, that's appropriate
(This concert originally was to feature Lorraine Hunt
Lieberson singing Mahler's Rückert Lieder.
Petrushka was programmed in its place when
she canceled due to a back injury.)