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Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brings Schumann’s concerto to SFS for one night only

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Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, cellist Yo-Yo Ma gave a one-night-only performance with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). His selection was Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 concerto in A minor, a composition that receives less attention than it deserves. Ma now has such a broad variety of interests in performing so many different genres that it was a delight to listen to him make his case for the virtues of this particular piece.

Schumann composed this concerto in October of 1850, but it was not given its first performance during his lifetime. In fact, the concerto was first performed on June 9, 1860 to honor what would have been Schumann’s 50th birthday, had he not died in 1856. It is an impressive example of Schumann’s search for imaginative approaches to conventional forms. The piece is in three movements played without interruption; and its approach to similarities across thematic material gives the sense of ternary form on a longer-than-usual scale of duration.

Personally, I feel there is some value in viewing this concerto as situated on a boundary between symphonic music and chamber music. MTT chose to perform it with a reduced string section, but there is no shortage of rich ensemble sounds. Nevertheless, the concerto opens will the soloist performing against rather thickly textured counterpoint in that string section. This left me wondering if those opening measures may have been conceived as a string quintet with an additional cello taking the lead, so to speak. One can almost imagine it having inspired the interleaving of voices that Johannes Brahms would later realize in his Opus 18 sextet in B-flat major (which happened to be composed in that year that would have marked Schumann’s 50th birthday).

As the concerto progresses, the strings open up into a more homophonic ensemble sonorities; but, as last night’s performance was conceived by Ma and MTT, there was always a certain spirit of chamber music in the rhetorical stance. This was probably most evident in the middle movement, which featured a ravishing cello duet which Ma performed with Associate Principal Peter Wyrick. Nevertheless, there was no short-changing opportunities for Ma to display his solo talents. However, while he approached the music’s virtuoso demands with a technical skill that always prioritized the music over the musician, Ma seemed to find the heart of the concerto in how the cello would fit into the overall ensemble texture, a striking change from the usual back-and-forth-dialog logic that one tends to find in concertos. The result was an opportunity to listen to Schumann at his most expressive through an interpretation in which the whole was decidedly greater than the sum of its parts.

The concerto was the centerpiece of a conventional overture-concerto-symphony program. The combination, however, turned out to be a slightly peculiar one. The “overture” was actually the third movement (“The Alcotts”) from Henry Brant’s “A Concord Symphony.” This is the same music with which MTT opened the current subscription season, and it is clearly one of the conductor’s favorites. I continue to take issue with the program book describing this as music by Charles Ives orchestrated by Brant. One might call “A Concord Symphony” an orchestra transcription of Ives’ second (“Concord”) piano sonata; but it would probably be fairer to call Brant’s effort a considered rethinking, in orchestral terms, of ideas that originated in Ives’ sonata.

Having made that point, it is important to note that the third movement was probably the easiest part of Brant’s work, just as it is the easiest to prepare for any pianist bold enough to take on the sonata. It evokes several familiar themes and gestures in a style found in many of Ives’ compositions, but this particular movement is one of Ives’ least dissonant works. This is thus the one movement that lends itself to “conventional orchestration;” but even here Brant establishes the music as his personal reflections on Ives’ own thoughts about the movement.

In his spoken introduction MTT suggested that the Alcott family home in Concord (called “The Hillside”) was a place of quiet refuge from the rough-and-tumble philosophies and activities of the transcendentalists. (The Wikipedia entry for Amos Bronson Alcott notes that it was from this house that Alcott loaned his ax to Henry David Thoreau, who was in the process of building his home at Walden Pond.) Similarly, in Ives’ sonata, the movement is a refuge from the wild and frequently improvisatory dissonances of the other three movements, named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne (who later moved into “The Hillside”), and Thoreau.

This made for a rather unconventional introduction to the Schumann concerto. Curiously, the concerto was composed a few years after the Alcott family left their Concord home and moved to Boston; and it is not too difficult to associate Schumann’s inquiring thoughts about music with the spirit of the New England transcendentalists, even if he never knew who any of them were. Still, the “refuge rhetoric” of the music made for a slightly unsettling introduction to the deeper and more heartfelt probing that would emerge in last night’s performance of Schumann’s concerto.

The symphony selection of the evening was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 in A major (the seventh). There is no doubt that Schumann knew (and probably studied intently) this symphony. One might almost consider it as a possible trigger for some of Schumann’s more manic enthusiasms. However, that would make it a sharp contrast to the cello concerto, one of those few pieces that goes to neither manic nor depressive extremes.

On the other hand MTT was clearly right at home with this symphony’s vigorous rhetoric. His physical approach to performing the work could almost have been called choreographic. The problem, however, was that I was not always clear about whether he was leading or following his ensemble. While it was certainly the case that things never got out of control, particularly with regard to the impeccable blending of sonorities from the different orchestral sections, there seemed to be less of the excitement of in-the-moment spontaneity that had charged the Schumann concerto and will always be the primary advantage that performance has over recording. There is no doubt that last night’s Beethoven performance elicited a burst of enthusiasm from the audience (which I am sure was sincere); but, particularly when compared with Thursday night’s approach to Gustav Mahler’s third symphony, the performance felt like a return to familiar ground rather than a search for a new path.

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