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Michael Tilson Thomas again mines Beethoven’s expressiveness with SFS

Portrait of Beethoven painted in 1801, between the composition of his two violin romances
by Carl Traugott Riedel (1769-1832), from Wikipedia (public domain)

Once again, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) has made Ludwig van Beethoven the focus of attention, this time for a consecutive pair of subscription concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall. The first performance of the first of those concerts was given last night with the benefit of a “sneak preview” at the beginning of the week, when A Salute & Birthday Party for Gordon Getty was brought to a rousing conclusion with a “rip-snorting” (in MTT’s own words) account of the final movement of Beethoven’s Opus 92 symphony in A major (the seventh). Last night Opus 92 occupied the entire second half of the program, and it more than lived up to the promises of its preview.

I am beginning to lose count of the number of times I have heard MTT conduct this symphony with SFS. I remember that the first time did not make much of an impression, but I also remember that things got progressively better after that. Last night maintained that monotonic trend as MTT continues to find fresh insights for each new approach to the score.

One of the most important lessons from Leonard Slatkin’s recent book, Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro, is that the interpretation of Beethoven is not some abstract problem that can be solved through the studious examination of manuscripts and Urtext editions. In a detailed study of one short passage, Slatkin reproduces not only Beethoven’s published version but also modifications to those measures prepared for performance by conductors Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, George Szell, and Leonard Bernstein, each of which had its own logic based on both the resources for performing and the setting in which listening would take place. (Arturo Toscanini is also mentioned in passing.) As pianist András Schiff demonstrated so impressively last October, performing Beethoven, whether behind a keyboard or on a conductor’s podium, is an undertaking in which extensive groundwork must be laid upon which the immediacy of expressive performance may then be erected.

Last night that immediacy revealed itself through a vigorous expenditure of energy. The release of that energy teetered on the brink between disciplined control and wild abandon, suggesting that, if MTT had been influenced by any of those past conductors, Mahler would likely be the “prime suspect.” Most important was the interplay of the different instrumental sections. As expected, the strings provided the “logical foundation” for the thematic material, not only for stating that material but for providing the context within which winds and brass would make their own contributions in combinations that would jolt the mind into paying closer attention to what was initially taken to be familiar. All this was realized with a keen sense of tempo, generally brisk but never over-the-top reckless, and an even keener sense of dynamics, particularly in finding just the right rate for allowing a crescendo to build. One might almost call this a reading that firmly established Beethoven’s place in the 21st century.

This dramatic conclusion was complemented by a far more low-key introduction. Violinist Alexander Barantschik performed as soloist in the two romances, Opus 40 in G major, composed in 1802, and Opus 50 in F major, composed in 1798. (This is one of many examples in which Beethoven’s order of publication did not reflect his order of composition.) Each of these is a relatively modest single movement in which the violinist is accompanied by what amounts to a chamber orchestra.

I have to confess that I personally prefer a chronological approach to these two pieces. There are any number of ways that Beethoven was flexing his inventive capacities in 1798, but he was still working within rather conventional structural approaches. By contrast the 1802 romance begins with the soloist playing without accompaniment, a rhetorical device that would serve him well in several other concertante compositions. The experience of this “change of strategy” in Opus 40 can have more of a shock value (for me at least) when it follows the more conventional earlier effort.

Last night’s performance, however, was taken in opus number order. Considering that Opus 40 was the first work on the program, Barantschik did an excellent job of seizing and holding audience attention with those first solo measures, almost making the entry of the orchestra sound a bit anticlimactic. From the podium MTT managed the interplay between soloist and ensemble with a quiet elegance that did little to suggest just how different things would be on the other side of the intermission. Thus, over the course of the evening, those of us on audience side received a modest tour of Beethoven’s capacity for breadth in his approach to expressiveness.

Between these two Beethoven offerings MTT programmed The B-Sides by Mason Bates, this season’s Project San Francisco composer-in-residence. This five-movement suite was originally premiered by SFS in May of 2009 in a concert in which it had to rub shoulders with a piano concerto by Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 16 in G minor, the second) and the disquietingly enigmatic fourth symphony in A minor by Jean Sibelius (Opus 63). MTT had approached Bates to compose a piece in the spirit of the five pieces for orchestra that Arnold Schoenberg had composed in 1909. As Schoenberg had taken a broad expressionist approach to the interplay of instrumental sonorities, Bates approached his task in terms of the interplay of instruments and “electronica,” which would be performed as an additional “voice” in the conversation (rather than as a solo voice set apart from the ensemble).

That interplay is explored with considerable diversity over the course of the five movements of Bates’ suite. Nevertheless, while the electronica are capable of a wide dynamic range and a breadth of sonorities that cannot be quantified, the role it played in The B-Sides tended to sound more than a little impoverished in 2009. Last night it sounded all the more so, particularly in the context of many of Bates’ later compositions in which the electronica seems to have found a better “comfort zone” for engaging with the resources of a full orchestra. The program that MTT had prepared for this week seemed to use Beethoven as a vehicle to establish the full scope of orchestral expressiveness; and, within that scope, modern technology felt disquietingly out of place. If Prokofiev and Sibelius had confronted Bates with an imposing presence in 2009, Beethoven emerged last night as even more imposing, and far more satisfying thanks to MTT’s insights as a conductor.

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