Offbeat Openings and Experiments with Form

United StatesUnited States  Beethoven, Brahms, Samuel Carl Adams: Yuja Wang (piano), Samuel Carl Adams (electronica), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 6.3.2013 (HS)

Samuel Carl Adams: Drift and Providence
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Brahms: Symphony No. 1

If there was a theme to Michael Tilson Thomas’ programming on this week’s San Francisco Symphony subscription series, it may have something to do with how all three composers experimented with form to create something new while not abandoning the familiar. Or maybe not. Given the crisp tempos and unflagging pace of the conductor’s approach, it might have been about how much energy familiar works can still spark.

Or maybe it was just about offbeat openings. Beethoven, for example, begins the Piano Concerto No. 4 with the soloist alone, quietly playing a chordal passage before the orchestra enters for the full exposition. In the first pages of his Symphony No. 1, Brahms assails us with some of his most dissonant utterances over relentlessly pounding timpani. And the first sound we hear in Samuel Carl Adams’ Drift and Providence (2012) is of cowbells being rubbed together, the electronically enhanced overtones of which define the murky dissonances of the opening measures. In all three cases, the music ultimately settles into more familiar and congenial modes. Much of the fun is about getting there.

Although all three rides had their thrills, the highlight—not unexpectedly—was Yuja Wang’s breathtaking playing in the Beethoven. Few pianists can match her combination of jaw-dropping precision and a flexibility that creates elegance and reflects the music’s emotions. Those opening chords, for example, emerged out of nowhere and undulated gently, with just enough hesitance to feel as if she were improvising.

Wang is not one of those young pianists who dazzle us simply with technique. She has something to say with each utterance, and every new phrase found her exploring new ways to shape it. Runs had lapidary clarity, no matter how quick the tempo. Every turn expressed something fresh, all within a Beethovenian framework. Tilson Thomas did his part by keeping things moving smartly, yet still coaxed a melting legato from the strings one moment, tilting his body this way and that in the rollicking finale to inject some pesante into the proceedings.

In its twenty minutes, Drift and Providence, a San Francisco Symphony commission that made its debut only in September, explores a shifting sound world in its five sections. The New York-based Adams, who grew up in Berkeley across the bay (he’s the son of composer John Adams), notes that the streets, sights and sounds of San Francisco inspired him, although it’s not always obvious to this long-time San Franciscan. The piece seems wholly abstract in the way it teases out harmonies from that opening cluster of cowbell overtones, and later, extensions to the musical lines.

From this fog the oboe and clarinet emerge with a piercing two-note downward stepping motif. With time this develops into a three-note, vaguely jazz-centered cell that expands in several directions.

Through this first section, “Embarcadero,” the music seems to be in search of itself. It is replete with hesitations. A short interlude, “Drift I,” builds to a climax, and after a dramatic pause we get the central section, “Divisadero,” which develops the first section’s material in a more structured and focused—if less dissonant—direction. “Drift II” brings a return of the transitional material from “Drift I,” gaining momentum as it dives into the final section, “Providence,” which starts with a full-throated roar and subsides, fitfully, until it finally evaporates in mid-phrase.

Despite the tonal color, on first hearing last September the ambiguity of all this bothered me. Hearing it again made me realize that ambiguity was the point all along. It is unsettling music. Just when you think it’s reached a conclusion, the ground shifts or the wind blows in a different direction—not unlike San Francisco, after all.

On the other side of intermission, Tilson Thomas shepherded a dry-eyed, relentlessly driven performance of the Brahms symphony. It was all about rhythm and power, not just in the outer movements but also in the more introverted inner ones. The slow movement seemed a bit rushed, and the third marked “poco allegretto e grazioso” skipped over the “grazioso” part, but both were impressive for their clarity. The opening movement pulsed with vitality and sheer energy, however, and Tilson Thomas sustained the feeling impressively through its entirety. With clear unanimity of purpose, the ensemble landed every phrase with precision and dramatic inflection. Picking up on that, the finale imbued the opening pizzicato phrases with a palpable sense of mystery, and then the arrival of the C-major tune brought wonderful release. From there, the momentum built, with uncanny inevitability, to the big climax. The brass covered themselves with glory.

Audiences in New York and New Jersey can make their own judgments about this program when the orchestra plays it at Carnegie Hall (March 20) and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (March 22) in a couple of weeks. If the music making is as vivid as it was here, it will be worth checking out.


Harvey Steiman