Having taken care of the festivities for the annual Opening Night Gala, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) can now get down to its reliable business practices of providing top-quality listening experiences on a week-by-week basis. Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), on the podium, they did that with a program consisting entirely of works by American composers. The two compositions that began and ended the Gala concert, George Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony” and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” now filled the second half of that program. The major work on the first half was Samuel Barber’s Opus 14 violin concerto with soloist James Ehnes; and it was preceded by Henry Brant’s orchestral interpretation of “The Alcotts,” the third movement of Charles Ives’ second (“Concord”) piano sonata.
While the Antheil and Gershwin selections served excellently as the “bookends” for the Gala concert, there was much to be gained from listening to them performed side-by-side. One could better appreciate the Jazz Age context in which both of these pieces were composed, even if their respective composers took radically different rhetorical stances. Antheil was the unabashed avant-gardist, going straight for the shock value with music that vigorously thumbed its nose at jazz traditions as much as it did symphonic traditions. Gershwin, on the other hand, was the supreme showman in the service of the bright lights of Broadway; but his passion for the “serious” music of the time was just as intense. With “An American in Paris” he was able to develop the genre of the tone poem to serve the needs of the concert hall without sacrificing his consummate command of the razzle-dazzle.
However, there was at least once significant element beyond MTT’s use of juxtaposition to enhance his interpretation of both of these pieces. That element was the influence of jazz trumpet playing that inspired Antheil and Gershwin in equal measure. Thus, while trumpeter Mark Inouye was only listed as a soloist in the Antheil, his personal approach, clearly informed by a mastery of jazz practices in a variety of styles, provided a critically informative link between the two compositions.
He definitely deserved recognition in the Antheil, since his part provided the strongest and most extensive opportunity for improvisation beyond the marks on paper. By 1925, when Antheil wrote “A Jazz Symphony,” James “Bubber” Miley had become a fixture in the style of Duke Ellington, taking his trumpet parts over the top with both melodic and sonorous inventions. “Black and Tan Fantasy” was one of the earliest examples of where his excursions could lead; and it was easy to speculate that Miley’s spirit was guiding Inouye through his own excursions through Antheil’s score.
In “An American in Paris,” on the other hand, the trumpet assumes the “role of protagonist” in several of the episodes of the tone poem. Indeed, the composition as a whole is as much a portrait of that imagined protagonist as it is a series of events through which that character emerges. (Gershwin, himself, took painting very seriously and devoted much of his work to portraiture. Arnold Schoenberg was one of his subjects.) Thus, in this case, Inouye’s work had less to do with channeling a particular performance style and more with capturing the character changes through stylistic techniques. This was particularly evident in the most upbeat of the episodes, in which Inouye got to swing his eighth-note rhythms before the violin section picks them up for a more four-square rendition.
All of this attention to Inouye, however, should not detract from the “official” soloist of the evening. James Ehnes brought all of the understanding and expressiveness through which one can appreciate Barber’s composition as a major contribution to the repertoire of the twentieth century. Barber wrote this piece in 1940, revising it in 1948. Within fifteen years, however, it had fallen from grace under the almost fanatical obsession that any composition with a tonal center was nothing short of heretical. Fortunately, we tend to be more open-minded these days when it comes to diversity of styles; and there is no longer any stigma attached to the Opus 40 concerto.
As is the case with many concertos, the division of time across the movements is not particularly balanced. The opening Allegro movement is the most extended. It is also far more meditative (and sometimes wistful) than one would expect from an Allegro tempo marking. The Andante movement that follows has a slightly shorter duration. In many respects it continues the mood established in the first movement, but with a new set of melodic materials. Both of these movements also share acute sensitivity for the sonorities coming from the orchestra, sometimes suggesting that, as the concerto unfolds, the violin pursues a “journey” of conversations with each of the instruments. (The opening piano accompaniment may also be a bit of a joke, trying to fool the listener that the concerto is actually a sonata.) The final movement is far shorter and the most intensely virtuosic. The tempo marking is Presto in moto perputuo, and the violinist is given almost no relief from the perpetual motion dynamo that drives this movement.
What was most notable about Ehnes’ interpretation was his ability to endow each of his melodic lines with its own sense of “character type.” This served well the premise that the concerto is a series of conversations between the violin and different instrumental sonorities. As the conversation changes, so does the character of the conversationalist. While this is far from a “narrative” composition, there is very much a sense of dramatism in the violin part serving as both soloist and interlocutor. It was clear that both Ehnes and MTT appreciated that dramatic element and shared their approach as to how it could be expressed.
MTT opened this concert by “renewing his vows,” so to speak, with Brant’s “A Concord Symphony,” last performed in its entirety during the American Mavericks Festival of the SFS Centennial year. As I have previously observed, this is, technically, an orchestra transcription of Ives’ second piano sonata; but it might be better to describe it as Brandt’s documentation of his own experiences of listening to that sonata. This is particularly the case when Ives demands more of the pianist than might seem physically possible.
However, “The Alcotts” is the least demanding of the sonata’s four movements. It is thus also the one movement of “A Concord Symphony” that comes closest to conventional orchestration. Whether or not that orchestration adds or detracts from what Ives wrote for the piano, MTT gave this movement a loving interpretation, capturing the sincerity of Ives’ own sense of nostalgia without ever letting the rhetoric descend into mawkish sentimentality. In many respects this performance provided a calming introduction to an evening of intensive expressiveness with more than a little raucous exuberance.