Tilson Thomas and Dvořák Wave the American Flag

13/11/2017

Ives, Dvořák, Gershwin: Amitai Pati (tenor), Philip Skinner (bass-baritone), San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 10.11.2017. (HS)

IvesPsalm 90; Symphony No.3, The Camp Meeting
DvořákThe American Flag
Gershwin
An American in Paris 

What, one might inquire, is a piece by Antonin Dvořák doing on a program promoted as “American Masters”? Of course, the Bohemian composer actually did reside in the United States for three years in the 1890s, and this case the piece in question was an odd rarity, a cantata for the American flag.

More about that further on, as this unusual piece was superseded by the final work, a fascinating and invigorating new version of Gershwin’s masterpiece, An American in Paris. Previously only heard here in its various revisions, the piece capped a program that played to the strengths of the San Francisco Symphony and its conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. A longtime champion of American music, he also led definitive traversals of two of Charles Ives’ more accessible scores.

An American Paris is something of a signature item for this orchestra on tour; soloists capture the jazz flavors, and the band can swing, shifting easily from puckishness to grandeur. The new critical edition, overseen by Gershwin’s family, restores the composer’s original orchestration, including raucously tuned taxi horns and a more colorful use of saxophones.

As Tilson Thomas explained from the podium, Gershwin acquired a collection of taxi horns on a visit to Paris and employed four of them in this score, labeling them “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” He apparently did not mean for these to be their pitches, but that’s how orchestras have come to use them. His horns’ actual pitches were A-flat, B-flat, high D, and low A, with introduces a touch of cacophony to the F-major tune that’s missing from what we usually hear in their interjections.

Gershwin also featured saxophones in more homogenous groups, such as three sopranos at once, adding more vivid color to such moments as the insouciant blues melody. Principal trumpet Mark Inouye played the solo with a bit less funk and a little more reserve than he usually does. Overall, the conductor corralled the whole into more of a 1920s uprightness rather a slouch of later-era jazz. The results made a completely new experience.

The program lists Dvořák’s The American Flag as “the first and only performances” by the orchestra. The wording might be prophetic. The piece is not going to make anyone forget the composer’s Symphony No.9 “From the New World” or his String Quartet No.12, the American.

This music calls to mind Wagner (notably Tannhäuser and Flying Dutchman) more than Dvořák, with much orchestral bluster and stentorian singing of a grandiloquent patriotic poem. First published in 1815 by Joseph Rodman Drake, the work begins with Freedom summoning her eagle to carry a banner for her chosen land. Several odes to the flag ensue, each referencing a branch of military service.

For their part, tenor Amitai Pati and bass-baritone Philip Skinner, both regulars at San Francisco Opera, lavished bold singing on this patriotic fare, as did the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The orchestra whipped up many a climax.

If the whole adds up to less than the sum of its parts, the back story might explain why. The philanthropist Jeannette Thurber, who brought Dvořák to New York to help found the National Conservatory of Music, tasked the composer with writing a cantata for an 1892 celebration marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America. He thought the poem well-suited to music, but lacked the time to write the longer piece she wanted. He finished the 15-minute work on the sea voyage, before he had a chance to get a taste of actual America, and it shows.

The program opened with Ives’ soulful account of Psalm 90, originally written for his church choir around 1898 but redone from the ground up in the 1920s. The posthumous world premiere did not come until 1966. It’s a great workout for the chorus, accompanied only by whispers of chimes, softly struck gongs, and an organ that mostly provides a long pedal tone of low C. Ives’ harmonies reverberate against this note, sometimes with dissonance, other times in bald triads, always with contrapuntal movement in the voicings.

The contrast with the surface glitter of the cantata was striking. The chorus rendered this music fervently and with precision. They also provided touchstones for Ives’ Symphony No.3, The Camp Meeting, which opened the second half, singing five of the hymns that the composer used as raw material for the three-movement symphony, which followed without pause. It did not require sharp ears to hear how inventively and powerfully Ives developed these melodies and harmonic patterns into contrapuntal complexity and real majesty.

Permeating the performance were ease and a sense of generosity, supplemented by rich textures and sunny devotion. The finale, a soulful Largo, was especially effective.

Along with next week’s Symphony No.4 (another work woven from hymns that were popular in Ives’ time), these performances are being recorded for future release on the orchestra’s own label.

Harvey Steiman

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