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As We Really Like It

March 11, 2008

Two masterpieces graced Thursday's program of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, aided and abetted by violinist Gil Shaham. Only two works were on offer, but that was enough to provoke the audience to standing ovations. And, for a change, those reactions were no exaggeration.
Davis Symphony Hall resounded with the sound of William Schuman's big, bravura Violin Concerto (1947-59), and, following intermission, Beethoven's even larger, bravura Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, the "Eroica" (1802-1804).

Schuman's importance to American music can hardly be overestimated. Aside from his highly individual form of daring, his efforts as an administrator bespeak an equal importance. After teaching for 10 years at Sarah Lawrence College, he spent 12 years as president of the Juilliard School, revising curriculums, founding the Juilliard Quartet, and adding a dance department. He was then equally influential while president of Lincoln Center, helping to set the operation on firm ground between 1962 and 1968.

Schuman came to classical music rather late. He was 19 when he heard his first symphonic concert. His first experience with modern music was Roy Harris' First Symphony, 1933, and he subsequently studied with him. (The story goes that when they walked offstage after the premiere of Schuman's Symphony No. 3, conductor Serge Koussevitzky said to Schuman, "And now you must learn to hate Roy Harris.") It took a while for Schuman to shun Harris' influence, but by the mid-1940s he had done so, and then the real Schuman came though loud and clear, as in this Violin Concerto.
Long Development
The concerto went though an uncommonly long gestation, due largely to its two revisions. The work had been a success at its premiere, but its aspiration to become a major addition to the violin repertory inspired Schuman to go on combing its hair and straightening its tie until it seemed just right to its creator.

Part of his problem lay in the unusual design. The work has only two movements, each divided into complex subdivisions. Schuman thus combined both the concerto's formal design with the suggestion of two rhapsodies. The rhapsodic, however, has nothing to do with the expected Romany style of thematic material, but instead leans subtly toward the American traditions of 20th-century popular music. Sections are subtly shot through with blues implications and jazzy rhythmic patters, all set forward in enormous bursts of masculine energy.

Schuman's instrumentation is also highly unusual. He used the standard full orchestra minus the tuba. While strongly symphonic, the concerto is more than a work for solo violin and orchestra. It contains so many passages for orchestra musicians, whether solo or in sections, that the effect is of a solo violinist accompanied by a concerto for orchestra.

In the finale, for instance, there's something akin to a cadenza for the timpanist. The violinists' second cadenza is accompanied only by the three trombones. And in the finale's short fugue the scoring is entirely for the full string section, as the remainder of the orchestra and the soloist keep silent. I know of nothing else in the repertoire like that.
Jaw-dropping Skill and Style
Gil Shaham is now at the top of his field. If anyone didn't know that before hearing him in Schuman's violently demanding concerto, they surely do now. His perfections of timbre and intonation even in the sprinting passagework, and his ability to levitate lyrical passages, were jaw-droppers. He was simply magnificent. It's hard to believe the violin can be played that well. By the last blaze of that brilliant coda, I was emotionally drained.

MTT had the orchestra playing the support in Apollonian eloquence. Balances, style, and pyrotechnics were all expressive, as well as dynamic. These same musicians are to repeat the work this week in New York's Carnegie Hall, and that should likely peel some plaster off the walls.

The same was true of the Beethoven performance, which balanced drama with profundity. Tempos were right on the mark, neither slow nor too quick. I found the slow movement particularly moving, and for a work so overly familiar that takes some doing. The Scherzo actually sounded like fun for a change, not just a fast dance. The rather surprising result was that the "Eroica" sounded fresh again.

I noticed that there were more than the usual number of empty seats in Davies Hall. Conservative music lovers will want to blame the Schuman modernisms, but I think the blame lay in a program of only two works. The couple seated next to me left after the concerto, perhaps feeling drained, or maybe not wanting to sit through just another run-of-the-mill "Eroica." (O ye of little faith.)
Revive the Overture
One of the things that has virtually vanished from modern symphonic programming is overtures. That's a great pity, since so many of them contain terrific music. And, after all, concert overtures are essentially first-movement symphonies. (Rossini titled his opera overture Sinfonia, as did Handel.)

Aside from that, overtures serve a practical purpose. People were being seated between movements of the concerto on Thursday. Parking in the area is never abundant, and difficult at best. With major events on in Davies Hall, the Opera House, and Herbst Theatre at the same time, that invariably leads to latecomers, made so while hunting a parking space. Opening a program with an overture, most of which are about eight to 10 minutes long, can slake that problem.

That's their mission in life, quite apart from the value of pieces such as Beethoven's Overture to Egmont, Mendelssohn's Ruy Blas or Hebrides, the host of Rossini or Berlioz overtures, and then Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák — you name 'em. Or perhaps an American composer's overture? William Schuman's American Festival Overture would do, or, considering the connection to Schuman and the aesthetics of the Beethoven, what about Roy Harris' overture to When Johnny Comes Marching Home?

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.