Evils Fly Through a String Orchestra

United StatesUnited States Strauss, Mark Volker, Beethoven: Yefim Bronfman (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 6.12.2012 (HS)

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
Mark Volker: Pandora
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat “Emperor”

If nothing else, the San Francisco Symphony’s world premiere performance of Pandora, written for string orchestra by Mark Volkert, the orchestra’s assistant concertmaster, proved that there’s plenty life left in old-fashioned sonata form. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas alluded to that when he noted that the concert program was in many ways a celebration of the abstract form, which dates back to the Classical Era, even as applied to what we describe as programmatic music.

The evening had opened with Richard Strauss’ familiar tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The colorful story is told musically through the framework of sonata form—after an introduction comes an exposition of contrasting themes, a development expands on the material as it wanders from the original key and finally arrives back home in the recapitulation. Strauss cleverly masks the development by using the musical material in a series of episodes, only revealing itself when the original music comes back in the closing pages.

Pandora has a storyline too. It’s based on the Greek myth of Pandora, the gift of the gods with great beauty but a deceitful nature, who unleashes hidden horrors on the world when she lifts the lid on an urn containing her several specific evils. (Yes, in the original story, it was an urn, not a box.) The musical form is equally well hidden, in this case as several cadenzas interrupt the proceedings featuring principals of the double bass, cello and second violin sections, and finally from the concertmaster, giving the piece the feel of a concerto for string orchestra.

Form aside, what makes Pandora special is Volker’s command of musical elements. This the third piece of his the orchestra has played. As an accomplished violinist he knows how to write for strings, and he paints his canvas with a panoply of colors and striking effects. There are times when the voicings and manner of playing suggest the sound of flutes, horns, even percussion. The variety of instrumental combinations is dazzling. Here a string quartet emerges from the orchestral sound, there a duet (in parallel thirds!) of double basses in their high range, punctuated by shrieks from a violin. A quartet of cellos builds slowly in depth and intensity. Massive tutti in the basses and strings create frightening power. Roller coaster waves of rapid phrases in the violins establish a scrimshaw trim around jagged melodic lines from the rest of the ensemble.

The piece begins with mysterious quiet, foreboding chords shifting restlessly. The moment when Pandora opens the lid is obvious. The tempo shifts into high gear and rapid-fire rhythmic phrases bounce around the orchestra. That subsides into a gentler paragraph, but it doesn’t last and we’re off in a series of episodes that evoke the different evils.

Unexpectedly, everything eventually quiets down into a deadpan minuet featuring the two double basses, a wonderful moment that brought titters from the audience. The recapitulation snags snatches of the various episodes before arriving at the concertmaster’s final cadenza, a tour de force of violin technique, full of virtuoso effects and flourishes.

Volker’s musical language never strays from tonality, scattering dissonances with moderate pungency. He does tend to keep the rapid rhythmic elements going for extended periods. Sometimes it feels the whole piece is a grinding machine that periodically shifts into neutral before revving up again. All in all, it’s a piece worth hearing again and again.

The Strauss tone poem got a reading full of wonderful colors and individual solos with distinct personalities. Tilson Thomas invested the often-shifting tempos with a bracing, improvisational feel. The various sections of the orchestra made their contributions seamlessly. It was a rewarding performance all around, with special mention to principal horn Robert Ward, who played the opening solo flawlessly and with wit.

There was more sonata form after intermission, with pianist Yefim Bronfman proving himself as adept a collaborator as he was a soloist in a lapidary account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in E flat “Emperor.” What made the performance special was the attention to dynamics. Again and again, Tilson Thomas and Bronfman found uncanny balances that exposed the inner workings of the music while never losing the flow. For his part Bronfman displayed deft control of the subtleties of both dynamics and tempo, especially within transitions, artfully tempering the gradations of sound and speed.

Harvey Steiman