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San Francisco Symphony

Gil Shaham
Michael Tilson Thomas

May 17, 2006

Gil Shaham

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Beauties and No Beast

By David Bratman

The one-l lama, he's a priest.
The two-l llama, he's a beast.

These lines by Ogden Nash came to mind at Wednesday's San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall. The program featured the one-n Schuman and the two-n Schumann, together again for perhaps the first time since the young William Schuman (20th century American) was introduced to classical music by attending a Toscanini performance of the "Rhenish" Symphony by Robert Schumann (19th century German), the same piece that represented him at this week's concert.

Of the two composers, perhaps it was the two-n Schumann who was the priest, as the "Rhenish" is most renowned for its slow movement inspired by a solemn ceremonial at Cologne Cathedral. But does that make the one-n Schuman a beast? After all, he was an American modernist, composer of tough, determined, sometimes brutal music. His violin concerto, performed at this concert, is a huge work in two epic movements with complex structure and many contrasting sections. It's strongly rhythmic, full of brass and percussion. The concerto begins with the orchestra, punctuated by snare drum, rapping out a taut rhythm while the violin plays an impassioned chromatic melody. The opening of the second movement could easily be from a timpani concerto. Later there are parts from a sonata for solo violin and three trombones: Could Schuman have been inspired by the three trombones in his predecessor's cathedral movement?

Nicely paced

Whatever the concerto's inherent qualities, it was anything but beastly in this performance. For all his apparent brusqueness, Schuman considered himself a Romantic composer. Violinist Gil Shaham and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas took this as their cue. They kept the music moving briskly but brought as much heart to it as they possibly could. The solo part, though long and challenging, is not a virtuoso display. It melds with the orchestra and at times approaches an obbligato part. Shaham played it smoothly and effortlessly, producing a strong but not too rich tone that blended splendidly with the harmonies of the string section, especially in the first movement's molto tranquillo slow section, which became an oasis of somber beauty.

The orchestra produced a reflective romantic sound that suggested a similarity between Schuman's writing and some of Leonard Bernstein's. Throughout the piece, Tilson Thomas' accomplishment was to make this formidable music sound human. His instinctive affinity for and understanding of the work was nothing short of astonishing. The full, broad reading brought an agreeableness to the concerto. Both Shaham and the orchestra played as if there was nothing to be afraid of in William Schuman's tough rhythms and chromatic lyricism. The audience responded warmly. This performance was a model of communication of 20th century music.

After this, how would Robert Schumann's familiar symphony sound? Not tired or drab in this performance. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra tightened up the work's bones and brought out its solidity. They were driven and emphatic in the first movement and the finale, and avoided coyness in the scherzo and intermezzo. The slow movement worked equally well, concluding with amazing final chords so slow and grand as to force a visualization of the pillars of the cathedral. There was a toughness here, negating the inadvertent over-sweetness that sometimes comes in a diatonic work following a highly chromatic one.

A striking work by Varèse

All right then, if neither Schuman(n) was the beast, what about Edgard Varèse? The remaining work on the concert was Ecuatorial, his 1934 entry in the Latin American primitivist sweepstakes, a category of work the Symphony has been interested in: We've heard works of this kind by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Choros No. 10) and Silvestre Revueltas (La noche de los Mayas) in recent years. Varèse's title is about 1,300 miles off from the Guatemalan jungles whence originates his text, a Spanish translation of a prayer from the Mayan Popul Vuh; but he was from Paris, and he figured that a title "merely suggestive of the regions" was close enough.

Ecuatorial is scored for one bass singer (or optional chorus) accompanied by the back tier of the orchestra: four trumpets, four trombones (there are those trombones again), piano, organ (strictly instructed not to use the vox humana), timpani, and five other players of assorted percussion, plus two Ondes Martenot. The Ondes is one of those oo-ee-oo sine-wave generators usually heard only in the concert hall in works by Olivier Messiaen: an odd choice, one might think, for a work evoking pre-Columbian America. But in fact the two Ondes, aurally tumbling over each other in near-canon, sounded almost human and astonishingly close to the sound of Gil Shaham's violin producing high notes in the Schuman.

Also like Schuman, Varèse dislikes singling out his soloist. The bass sings in with the ensemble, producing a blended instrumental-vocal sound. But he shouldn't disappear behind the brass and percussion altogether, and this caused problems for the composer. At the first performance, the bass amplified himself with a megaphone, perhaps not an elegant solution. Subsequently Varèse tried a unison chorus for a louder sound but disliked their interpretation at one performance and reverted to a soloist. The work is now performed in both forms. Here, bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon gave a rich, articulated voice, discreetly amplified. But the words and Galyon's attempts to follow the score's instructions for vocal nuances ("nasal," "mumbled," and so on) were somewhat buried.

Varèse is an eccentric composer but never less than a fascinating one. As always with his music, the overall sound was striking. The brass declaimed crisply, the percussion gave out taut, insectoid rhythms, the piano and organ each interjected cries, the singer intoned in the depths, and the Ondes twirled above all. As with the concerto, Tilson Thomas' trick was demonstrating a cool mastery over this strange work and bringing it to a human scale. This is what Varèse wanted — for all his modernism he was a humanist, not a cold academician — so, though Ecuatorial was primitivist, it was not beastly. Despite the Latin American contribution, no two-l llama was heard at this concert.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved