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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 name Webern.

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 for Ives.

(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.)

Harvey Steiman




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