Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) took a rather unconventional approach in preparing the program for this week’s subscription concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. The visiting soloist was pianist Emanuel Ax, performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 concerto in C minor (the third). The remainder of the program, however, consisted of seven much shorter works. These were not quite “seven dwarfs” in the company of Beethoven’s “Snow White” concerto; but the difference in scale was unmistakable, as was the diversity among those seven selections.
For that matter, there was a fair amount of diversity in the performance of the Beethoven concerto as well. This is often approached as an instance of Beethoven’s use of C minor as a “dramatic” key, with the Opus 67 (fifth) symphony being the example that springs to mind most readily. While there are many instances of such dramatic intensity in Opus 37, particularly in the first movement, there are also healthy shares of comforting lyricism and the witty exercise of Beethoven’s capacity for playfulness. The latter is particularly the case when the piano is punctuating thematic statements from the orchestra with virtuosic riffs bouncing this was and that across the piano keyboard, very much in the spirit of the “show-off kid” style of performance we associate with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the keyboard.
Ax’ approach to performing this concerto clearly recognized the full spectrum of dispositions of attitude residing in Beethoven’s score (including Beethoven’s own written version of a cadenza for the first movement). He appreciated when the disposition was nuanced and when it was more directly assertive; and the result was a more compelling account of a concerto than is often limited to the “C minor dramatism” perspective. For his part, MTT always seemed to be in total agreement with Ax regarding the nature of the prevailing attitude, thus holding up the orchestral ensemble as not only a partner in conversation but also a mirror of the personality traits emerging from the piano part. It is hard to imagine an approach to performance that would put this concerto in a better light.
The success of that approach was probably due, at least in part, to the fact that both soloist and conductor knew how to approach Opus 37 with admiration unencumbered by idolization. It therefore seemed fitting that Ax should take an encore composed by one of Beethoven’s early admirers, Robert Schumann. Ax performed “Des Abends” (evening), the first piece in the Opus 12 collection of eight that Schumann called Fantasiestücke (fantasy pieces). His hushed account gave an exquisite account of the interleaving melodic lines, all delivered with deceptive simplicity.
The shorter pieces involved music composed between 1876 and 1940. The first of these preceded the concerto. This was Gustav Mahler’s single-movement “Blumine” (bouquet of flowers), originally conceived as a movement from incidental music for a theatrical account of the humorous epic poem Der Trompeter von Säckingen (the trumpeter of Säckingen) by Victor von Scheffel. It was then considered to serve as the Andante movement in Mahler’s first symphony, positioned between the first and second movements of the final version.
One can appreciate Mahler recognizing that this music was out of place in the context of the four movements of the symphony that he kept. There is a bit too much heart-on-sleeve sentimentality in the score, even if, true to its original intention, it offers what is probably Mahler’s only extended trumpet solo (given a deeply expressive account last night by Mark Inouye) that is not colored by either sarcastic mockery or the depiction of a funeral march. Nevertheless, this movement provides a wealth of insights into how “Mahler became Mahler,” so to speak. One can already detect many of his ingenious approaches to instrumentation and his ability to design a melodic line that peregrinates seamlessly from one instrumental section to another. In many respects this single movement is a “warm-up” for the intense expressiveness that would emerge through the far more intricate structures of Mahler’s symphonies; but, because it is only a “warm-up,” one can appreciate why Mahler had no trouble dispensing with it.
For purposes of last night’s program, however, what mattered most was the movement’s brevity. Mahler knew exactly to keep it at an appropriate durational scale, closer to that of a lyric poem than a full-out symphonic movement. Not all of MTT’s selections had such an keen sense of saying much in little time. The greatest disappointment was the music that Aaron Copland composed for the Hollywood film version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, a movie that missed the point of its source material in just about every imaginable way. Copland probably understood what Wilder had been doing; but he also seemed to know how to write “on spec” for the film industry (with the emphasis on that second noun). The music makes its point in the opening measures (which are highly effective) but then just makes the same point again and again in order to satisfy some director’s (Sam Wood, to be specific) conception of how the time should be filled.
In many respects Copland’s score was a latter-day exercise in filling time that paralleled the final selection of the evening, the “Cortège de Bacchus” scene from Léo Delibes’ ballet Sylvia. Sylvia is one of those ballets in which spectacle counts for far more than plot. Delibes knew how to command the full resources of an orchestra to dish out just the right music to prop up that spectacle. Even if one has never seen the ballet, the mind’s eye can summon up images of both groups and soloists parading across the stage in dazzlingly different costumes, all propelled by Delibes’ energetic score. For all I know, animals were part of that parade in the original production.
Nevertheless, this selection served to balance all of the preceding pieces, all of which tended to suffer from a dreamy listlessness. The second half of the evening began with the Copland, after which that brand of quietude seemed to become the order of the day. Claude Debussy’s orchestration of his “La Plus que lente” (slower than slow) piano piece made striking use of the sonorities of a cimbalom (summoned last night from the sampled sounds available on an electronic keyboard) but never really captured the spirit of the original composition. Frederick Delius’ “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring” stood out for its brevity, which basically showed that the composer had the best judgment in the set when it came to knowing when to stop. The most effective “poem” of the evening was Jean Sibelius’ “Valse triste,” which also had its origin as incidental music. This was the one selection in the second half of the program that MTT conducted as if the underlying drama mattered, and it was a high point of the evening. The Delibes was then preceded by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s orchestral version of his “Vocalise,” originally the last of his Opus 34 set of songs, performed, as the title suggests, without any words.
This approach to programming was an intriguing experiment on MTT’s part, but the plan for the experiment on paper seemed to come off better than the listening experience that resulted.