Bonbons in the Limelight

United StatesUnited States Mahler, Beethoven, Copland, Debussy, Delius, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Delibes: Emmanuel Ax (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 26.9.2013 (HS

Mahler: Blumine
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Copland: Music from the film Our Town
Debussy: La Plus que lente
Delius: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Sibelius: Valse triste, Op. 44
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
Delibes: “Cortège de Bacchus,” from Sylvia


After Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a second half entirely of short pieces, one wag suggested, “Maybe for an encore he’ll play a whole symphony.” He was smiling when he said it. The lineup of pieces usually thought of as bonbons made for a pleasant concert experience, tied together with richly detailed execution and interpretation.

The inspiration for programming gentle fare such as Copland’s understated music from the film Our Town and Sibelius’ wistful Valse triste came from programs Tilson Thomas heard as a student at the University of Southern California in the 1960s. He watched and listened as the violinist Jascha Heifitz and the cellist Gregor Piatagorsky lavished as much care and detail on the phrasing and expression in brief pieces as they did on sonatas and concertos. Heifitz, in fact, often programmed a series of such works as the second half a recital that opened with a couple of serious sonatas before intermission.

“Don’t feel obliged to applaud after each one of these,” he urged the audience in remarks preceding the second half of the concert. “Try to savor the silence with which each one of these pieces begins and ends. I promise you’ll know from the big finish when it ends.”

Audience members responded with rapt attention, as well they should given the pent-up passion and deft playing that not only linked the pieces but made each one a finely buffed gem.

At nine minutes, Copland’s film music was the longest of the works played, a marvelous evocation of the emotional rumblings lurking under the simplicity of small-town America. Debussy’s La plus que lente, a nod to gypsy-influenced salon music, complete with cymbalum obbligato (here played on an electronic keyboard), followed with more than a whiff of effulgent nostalgia. The gentle water-coloring of Delius’ On hearing the first cuckoo of spring was like a cleansing intake of breath before the long sigh of Sibelius’ Valse triste, given just enough push-and-pull on the tempo to make it tug at the heartstrings without overdoing it.

Rachmaninoff’s own orchestral arrangement of Vocalise—his much-loved hypnotic, wordless piece originally for soprano and piano—has a harmonic palette offering a sense of deepening before the rousing finale, the “Cortege of Bacchus” from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia. The gleaming brass flourishes came like a bright sip of espresso after what seemed like a softly-lit series of gentle neck massages.

The appetizer, Mahler’s tender Blumine, got a quiet jolt from the seamless legato and gorgeous tone of principal trumpet Mark Inouye. His execution of the opening theme was a marvel of serenity and beauty. The spell seemed to last through the entire ten minutes of the piece.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the meat of the program, as it were, aimed for a more benign aura than the portentous approach most pianists and conductors take. Emmanuel Ax emphasized the sprightly nature of the dance-like rhythms in the outer movements and strove for elegance and grace in the slow one. This surprisingly gentle account, almost like Beethoven by way of Mozart, was no doubt motivated by the lack of overt flash in the rest of the program. Charming as it was, I couldn’t help thinking that a bit more chewiness may have been exactly what the program needed for contrast.

For an encore, Ax maintained the delicacy in a lovely rendering of Schumann’s “Des Abends,” the first of the Fantasiestücke, Op. 12.

Harvey Steiman