John Frayne: San Francisco Symphony offers an interesting mix of old, new
In planning a symphony concert, a conductor must tread a path between the tried and true ("What, another 'New World Symphony?'") and the new and the rarely played. The usual formula is something like this: Out of 90 minutes of playing time, an audience may put up with a challenging work of about 20 minutes.
On Nov. 15, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony chose what seemed to me a balance of about 50/50: that is, two masterpieces and two new or unusual works.
The assembled forces of the San Francisco Symphony crowded the stage of the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I counted something like 60 strings alone, and these massed forces gave convincing power to the opening piece, "Leonore Overture No. 3" by Ludwig van Beethoven.
This splendid work had enormous impact under Tilson Thomas' dynamic leadership, but the piece was not overdriven, since he allowed the less intense passages to have their effect in contrast to the dramatic pages. The famous offstage trumpet call was delivered from a window high up above the balcony of the Foellinger, causing us in the capacity audience to crane our necks to see him.
The next piece was Steven Mackey's 1993 piece "Eating Greens." If you read the composer's description, you would think that this work had something to do with a painting of an African-American family eating greens, the paintings of Henri Matisse, the music of Thelonious Monk and the works of an array of experimental artists in which the name of Charles Ives stood out.
Also, 39 percussion effects were listed, including a "lion's roar" and a "referee's whistle." Before it started, Tilson Thomas described the piece to the audience, preparing us for many unusual effects.
The mountains heaved in labor, and what emerged from all this build-up? Well, in my opinion, it was more than a stunt piece — and a less-than-memorable musical experience. Some of the events, such as the sounds of a telephone left off the hook, were amusing, and Mackey produced an array of piquant orchestral effects from the enormous volume of musical talent on the stage, including snatches of Christmas carols.
Finally, its total effect might be called "controlled chaos," but with the lid kept on by Tilson Thomas, who, I believe, is the only conductor to have recorded it. I am grateful to him and the orchestra for playing it, but for me, once will be enough.
After intermission, and after the Mackey piece, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 was almost a shock in its atmosphere of balance and order. Less famous than Mozart's Nos. 20, 21 and 24, No. 25 has delightful melodies in its opening and closing movements, fit to be sung by one of Mozart's operatic characters.
Jeremy Denk played the piano solo with a crisp and clear touch on the keyboard. With precise attacks and releases, he played with wit and charm, while engaging in arresting thematic dialogues with the woodwinds of the orchestra. The rondo finale sparkled with brilliant playing from Denk, and a fine collaboration from the orchestra, sensitively led by Tilson Thomas.
The final work on the program was Aaron Copland's "Symphonic Ode," written in about 1930 and revised in 1955. Copland said that it was one of his favorite works, and Tilson Thomas, who is one of the few who have recorded it, seems to agree with the composer's estimate. Copland had a weakness for the monumental utterance, such as his brief "Fanfare for the Common Man."
"Symphonic Ode," 20 minutes long, tried for a big statement, but I do not think the work delivers themes and the treatment of these themes to justify the near-ear-splitting climax. Along the way, one hears flashes of inspiration which were to bear fruit in his later works in the 1930s and 1940s.
The brass choir that produced the loud finale included eight horns, four trumpets and 11 percussion instruments (few in comparison to Mackey's 31, but still quite loud).
As an encore, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra brought down the house with a snappy reading of the "Hoe Down" from Copland's ballet music for "Rodeo." This was greeted with a roar of enthusiasm which dwarfed any applause heard earlier in the evening.
Ah, if only Tilson Thomas had decided to end the concert with "Four Dances" from "Rodeo" in place of "Symphonic Ode!"
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.