MTT Gives Musician’s View of Beethoven’s Fifth

Niels Swinkels on September 20, 2016
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony | Credit: Bill Swerbenski

There are rare moments when you realize that everything is well with the world and the universe.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony in Beethoven’s Fifth, last Saturday, was such a moment.

In a program consisting of three complete symphonies, we found this iconic masterwork — one of MTT’s signature pieces — in the company of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 69, “Laudon.” They were grouped together because they are all in the key of C, with the Beethoven the only one in C minor.

This gave MTT occasion for a short and entertaining introduction, with quotes about the differences in character between the keys of C major and C minor from throughout music history, which boils down to: major = mirth; minor = gloom.

Beethoven's handwritten notation for the opening of the Fifth

However, gloom had nothing to do with Saturday night’s performance of Beethoven’s seminal symphony. MTT’s approach to the music lacked any form of drama — and that is a good thing. He let the music speak for itself, progress and evolve completely naturally; and every aspect of Beethoven’s symphony was vibrant, eloquent, and made perfect sense.

With MTT conducting, all previous or different interpretations of the Fifth had become irrelevant — in the sense that they were entirely unrelated to what happened during the concert at Davies.

It would be a cliche to say that MTT made Beethoven sound fresh and new, but it would also be very much true. And there was more: Saturday night’s perfectly executed headliner felt like a profoundly transformative, healing experience; a kind of cosmic reassurance that, on the whole, Things are Okay.

Perhaps the only negative aspect of this powerful Beethoven symphony was that it drew so much attention away from the middle child of the evening: Sibelius’ Third Symphony. On a different concert program perhaps a suitable headliner, it was now somewhat unceremoniously tucked away between the energetic Haydn concert opener and the Beethoven anticipation, and at the same time it was too big for a preintermission finale.

At the very least, this Sibelius offered an excellent musical view of the SFS as a living and breathing musical organism: beautiful ensemble playing in the symphony’s restrained textures and expansive Nordic musical panoramas; nicely contrasted sections with subtle solo work for the woodwinds, sonorous brass chorales, and a brief and sinister part for the timpani.

With its depth, pathos and rich orchestral colors, this Sibelius was musician’s music.

As an upbeat start to the concert, Haydn’s Laudon Symphony worked well enough once the high strings and basses found each other at the same tempo, about 90 seconds into the first movement. But the most interesting part of the symphony was its appealing second movement, marked Un poco adagio, più tosto andante (A little slowly, or rather a swift walking speed), plus the fact that the San Francisco Symphony had never played the piece before.

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