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A Farewell With Charms

September 4, 2007

Before departing for their big European tour, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offered their own bon-voyage sendoff Thursday night in Davis Symphony Hall. This was a sampler that will not be offered again anywhere. While performances were a tad uneven as to quality, the orchestra offered a few major surprises, not the least of which was soprano Lise Lindstrom, whose bloodthirsty performance of Strauss' Salome wowed the house.
The program looked a bit wacky on paper, and in truth it was. The evening opened with John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), followed by Charles Ives' Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1904), and then the final scene from Salome (1905). But that was merely the first half. Following intermission, MTT presented an amazingly convincing performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, Op. 47 (1937).

I gather that a lot of rehearsal time went into the Shostakovich, for the amount of detail in terms of balances and especially dynamic was astounding. There was a time when I thought this the greatest symphony ever written, but then I got to be 15 and it faded on me. It's currently on my list of "Music to be avoided as often as possible." Yet this performance was nothing short of brilliant. It has been a long time since I found myself enjoying the Fifth so much, even being moved by it.

The slow third movement is a thing I never much cottoned to, but on Thursday I was surprised to find myself transported. The ultrasoft playing, often at a whisper in the strings, plus the dulcet solo wind passages, bowled me over. The music hung there as if in levitation. After all, anyone can make noise, and the loud passages accomplished that, in spades. What was breathtaking were the sheer beauty of sound and the refined dynamics. It was as if the orchestra had made the dead to rise.
Destined for Greatness
Soprano Lindstrom, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is a major find destined for a major career. She sang the Salome finale with an elegance and beauty of timbre unrivaled in my experience. Yet she had the power to soar above Strauss' outlandishly large orchestra when it was at full roar. Nor did she lack remarkably tasteful dramatics — such as not chewing up the scenery, nor dragging in the role in great, bleating chunks, as has been too often the case in my experience. The only thing she omitted was the final death scream.

The performance did indeed offer the opera's finale. It began after the execution of John the Baptist, before Salome has seen the severed head, beginning with the words, "No sound to be heard. I hear nothing. Why doesn't the man scream?" It then proceeded to its ghoulish conclusion, lacking only Herod's final cry of "Kill that woman!" But, considering Lindstrom's performance, no one dared shout such a thing. Oddly, the few European performances that the S.F. Symphony will give of the work will feature not Lindstrom, but Deborah Voigt. No matter. Lindstrom is making her professional debut as Salome in Turin before returning to the Palm Beach Opera as Turandot. Word's gotten around.

John Adams' Short Ride is just that: a little, minimalist toccata running about five minutes. Low on substance, it has nevertheless gained wide popularity for its noise effrontery. Oddly enough, the orchestra gave it a slovenly performance well below its normal high standards. Ensemble was often a little out of focus, and here and there intonation was, as well. It isn't as easy to play as it looks on paper.
Ives in a Genteel Vein
Charles Ives' Third Symphony, which did not see stage lights until 1946 (and that, thanks to Lou Harrison), had a long gestation period. Somewhere I read that Mahler had seen and considered premiering that symphony back in his New York days, but it never came to pass. It's an odd work, especially for Ives, being so genteel. The folksy Third, brimming with spot-that-tune inserts, amounts to his Pastoral Symphony, particularly when compared to his other overtly raucous symphonies. It's too "pretty" for Ives, but what's wrong with that?

Two unexpected incidents occurred around the Ives performance. Following the first Andante movement ("Old Folks Gathering"), MTT tried to set the mood for the Scherzo ("Children's Day") by doing a little dance on the podium to loosen up the orchestra. I've never seen any such thing before from the maestro, but it worked.

The super-devout finale ("Communion") closes as a soft devotional, fading away as distant church bells — actually, orchestral chimes — sound a soft peal. The sound had hardly softened into silence when someone in the balcony let out a shriek such as you'd expect from Salome herself. Maybe she (or was it a he?) was trying to audition for the role.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.