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Striking Contrasts

March 4, 2008

When does 180 miles equal light-years? When you hear Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and Shostakovich’s Ninth on the same concert, and realize that the composers’ hometowns (Järvenpää and Leningrad) are that far apart from each other.
The symphonies are profound, and profoundly different. The Sibelius occupies space like a slow seethe of tide on the coast of a continent, whereas the Shostakovich floods a concert hall like a battery of nozzles at a carwash, its striking, satiric suggestions, circus antics, shrill sprays of piccolo, and bitter waltzes and laments all now inseparable from their creator and his plight in the age of Stalinism. Did the San Francisco Symphony, under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, handle this vast stylistic disparity in its Friday night concert?

Not quite, but it deserves an E for effort. The tempos for the Sibelius Seventh were right, and the Symphony was in fine form. Tilson Thomas exhorted the players, squeezing out sound with manifold gestures. But the symphony is in many ways a minimalist work, stuck, for the most part, in a thick sound world of long pedal points. As Scott Fogelsong writes in the unusually poetic program notes:
[T]he music persistently coalesces around its original molecules. Scales and semitones examined, contemplated, cycled, recycled, flipped over, peered through, stirred up, pressed down, rotated, modified, expanded, contracted, elaborated, simplified, heated, cooled, mixed, separated. … Melody, harmony, form, time, musical space itself — all subsumed.
In such an environment, the few flashes emerging from the subterranean cauldron of sound must be seized. The occasional pizzicatos, the stunning moment of silence near the conclusion and, most of all, the soaring trombone melody that structures the work with its three repetitions could have used a bit more emphasis and clarity. But Tilson Thomas deserves congratulations nonetheless for taking up the challenge of Nordic repertoire, a task usually left to guest conductors.
Exuberant New Works by Tilson Thomas
The worthy attempt at Sibelius aside, the rest of last Friday’s concert was stellar. The opening number, Tilson Thomas’ own Agnegram, made for a terrific curtain-raiser. Based on tunes derived from letters in the name of the late Agnes Albert (who was, noted Tilson Thomas, “an extraordinary patron [of the SFS Youth Orchestra] and friend”), the short piece pops along from one exuberant thing to another, in flashily effective orchestration.

Next came Tilson Thomas’ concertante work, Notturno, newly arranged for flute and chamber orchestra for its original soloist and dedicatee, Paula Robison. In the program notes, Tilson Thomas says the music evokes “the lyrical world of Italian music … and salon pieces.” It also has a subtext: “the role music plays in the life of a musician, and the role we musicians (must play?) in life.”

The parentheses point to the times when musicians must play whether they like it or not. The music illustrated this frustration with the soloist's heavy, angry blowing into the instrument. For the most part, however, the piece is meant to reflect the beauty of music in general, through the use of soaring melodies. The Italian/salon homage is depicted, among other ways, in an arpeggiated accompaniment worthy of a Bellini aria, and a reference to the stereotypical, carefree, Italian melody Funiculi Funicula by Luigi Denza.

Robison is from a family of actors, and showed it. Conveying the sections about frustration with a mock glare at the audience, or a deliberately noisy page-turn, or floating at times on tiptoe with eyes closed in the soaring passages, she brought the audience to its feet with her passionate rendition of the quarter-hour quasi-pastiche.

After intermission, a flawless Shostakovich Ninth brought out an enthusiastic standing ovation. While many soloists were deservedly pointed out and honored with cheers, I was particularly impressed with the utterly gorgeous tone of Principal Bassoonist Stephen Paulson, in the fourth movement. Tilson Thomas, seemingly exhausted from his earlier work trying to crack the Finnish nut, was relatively undemonstrative on the podium, except during the finale. Yet the supremacy of his orchestra and his unhistrionic interpretation are further proofs that in the Shostakovich and Mahler repertoire, the San Francisco Symphony and Tilson Thomas are in close agreement.

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 the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.