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MTT’s final tour preview concert offers two centuries of instrumental diversity

Violin soloist Julia Fischer taking a bow with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas
Violin soloist Julia Fischer taking a bow with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas
by Michael Strickland

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) gave the first of four performances of the final program he prepared to feature those compositions that the San Francisco Symphony will take on their coming European tour. The featured soloist, who will join them on the tour, was violinist Julia Fischer, performing Serge Prokofiev’s Opus 19 violin concerto (his first), composed in 1917. The second half of the program was then devoted entirely to Hector Berlioz’ 1830 Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique.”

The program thus presented two composers, both of whom worked with imaginative approaches to instrumentation and represented two different perspectives of that skill from two different centuries. Thus, while the violin was clearly the center of attention in Prokofiev’s Opus 19, one was always aware of the role it was playing in the sonorous landscape defined by the full ensemble. Furthermore, as I observed earlier this week about the second (Opus 63) concerto in G minor, one could appreciate how Prokofiev could appropriate thematic material conceived for a different setting and rethink it in a new context. Thus, while Opus 63 examined rhetorical gestures from Romeo and Juliet from a different point of view, so to speak, in Opus 19 Prokofiev revisited at least one bass-line motif that had figured prominently in his Opus 16 (second) piano concerto in G minor, completed in 1913, endowing it with an entirely different rhetorical stance.

Particularly impressive are the many ways in which Prokofiev experiments with ambiguity in Opus 19. The opening triple-meter measures of the violin solo (performed against the almost nebulous tremolo passages in the strings) seem to flirt with drifting into duple meter, almost like the image of the Necker cube in which the viewer can choose which of the eight corners is closest. In this respect many of the decisions about instrumentation reinforce those impressions of ambiguity, often as they apply to distinguishing foreground from background.

Such ambiguous effects work only when given the clearest possible statements of the materials. In that respect Fischer and MTT were decidedly of one mind when it came to how such clarity could be established. Together they could thus present the concerto to the listener as an exploratory journey through obscured paths that would reveal themselves only after closer inspection. Even the tempo selections seem to be calculated to disorient the listener, only resolved when the performers gave a precise account of how the rhythms had been notated. The result was a stimulating interpretation that brought the listener to the final measure with a genuine sense of accomplishment.

The Berlioz selection was far more familiar. Here again, however, clarity was of the essence. MTT made sure that each instrument and section contributed to the overall palette of sonorities with focused clarity. If the score had been conceived as an extended tone poem of drug-induced flights of fancy, MTT skillfully realized each of the fantastic qualities evoked by each movement without ever creating the impression that any of them had gotten the better of him. The experience was thus as subjectively wild and abandoned as Berlioz had envisioned but only by virtue of the discipline with which it was executed.

Both of these selections seem to have been well prepared to make sure that all serious European listeners that experience them will sit up and take notice.