sfcv logo


San Francisco Symphony

Christian Tetzlaff

Michael Tilson Thomas

February 1-3, 2007

E-mail this page

We Appreciate

Buried Treasure

By Jeff Dunn

Imagine a painting of pleasantly colored, indistinct blobs. For each day you expose it to the light a thick layer of varnish evaporates. After several exposures, you discover to your surprise that what you originally thought was a depiction of a misty moor is instead a meticulously detailed Garden of Earthly Delights.

Such was the transformation of Robin Holloway’s Fourth Concerto for Orchestra over three performances last week by the San Francisco Symphony. I am not speaking of my experience of revelation alone, but also, in my judgment, that of the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, and the members of the orchestra. For Thursday and Friday, their earnest efforts resulted in less than tepid audience responses, but by Saturday there were smiles from orchestra members as they played favorite passages and signal improvements in temporal and structural articulation on MTT’s part. The reward: lusty cheers and a partial standing ovation at last.

Portraying Piers Plowman

The Fourth Concerto is a prodigious orchestral suite portraying aspects of William Langland’s 14th-century allegory and satire, The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman (see the interview with Holloway in the Jan. 30 issue of SFCV). There are four main movements of symphonic proportions, plus two movements of dances — at least 18 sections and 330 pages of score in all. (The second dance movement was omitted in these performances.) The style is Ravelian, with greater or lesser dashes of Strauss, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and even Janácek. Yet at no time did I feel this was a pastiche: Instead, Holloway has synthesized past styles into one of his own, an integrative process that I hope will be a model for other composers looking for ways forward today.

The first movement (Prologue) begins with a marvelous depiction of Langland’s visions of heaven as a hilltop tower, and, more briefly, hell as a dungeon beneath a deep dale. But even more captivating is the second movement, a catalog of the world of the living, Langland’s “fair field full of folk.” This is a vast rondo scherzo lasting 18 minutes. In it, I counted at least 38 increasingly picaresque and abbreviated sections depicting folk dances, ballroom dances, waltzes, marches, polkas — you name it — including a long section with wind machine seemingly satirizing men of the cloth (Langland: “I found there friars of all the four orders, preaching to the people for profit to themselves”) with absurdly distorted versions of medieval plain chants (most notably, the Dies Irae).

Making sins dance

The Fair Field Full of Folk was worth the price of admission alone, but the third movement, a set of characteristic dances on the Seven Deadly Sins, is even more of a gem and worthy of excerpting as a separate piece. Highlights included Envy, a long section climaxing in the impression that dissonant chords are envious of consonant chords, and Lady Mede, the stately yet sensuous sarabande that concludes the movement.

David Herbert playing the Kraft timpani

The next movement, Narration, is meant to describe Piers plowing under of all the previous corruption (lento) and the burgeoning of a new spring (a delightful scherzinetto). It is in this movement that a serious compositional flaw first emerges: a tendency on Holloway’s part to halt forward motion, pick up the pieces, and start over again. When this device is overused in the concluding Epilogue, momentum is squandered and the audience is in danger of being lost and confused. Perhaps some interpretative tweaks can improve matters, but Holloway should seriously reconsider how he handles his transitions so he can maximize the effect of the astoundingly powerful chords that conclude the work.

An extremely effective portion of the Epilogue that won over all audience members I interviewed was the cadenza for the 15 specially fabricated timpani originally built for the William Kraft Second Concerto. It was brilliantly brought off by Principal Timpanist (and designer) David Herbert. And almost all of the Saturday night crowd I spoke with enjoyed the piece as a whole. One gentleman volunteered, “It was like reading War and Peace in one sitting!”

Christian Tetzlaff

And more treasure was to emerge in the second half of the program. Christian Tetzlaff, whom you’d think was a mild-mannered tax accountant were you to pass him on the street, turned into a firebrand in the concluding vivace of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Throughout the work, his intonation was spot-on, his interpretations passionate, his musicianship consummate — a thoroughly satisfying ending to a remarkable evening.

(Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of NACUSA and president of Composers Inc.)

©2007 Jeff Dunn, all rights reserved