Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Pay a Memorable Visit to Birmingham

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ives, Adams, Berlioz: St. Lawrence String Quartet, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 14.3.2014 (JQ)

Ives (orch Henry Brant) – ‘The Alcotts’ from A Concord Symphony
John AdamsAbsolute Jest for Orchestra and String Quartet
BerliozSymphonie Fantastique


Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony – or MTT and the SFS as they are widely known – swung into Birmingham at the start of an 11-concert European tour that will take them on to London, Paris, Geneva, Dortmund, Luxembourg and Vienna. Though other works will be performed during the tour, including Mahler’s Third Symphony, this programme was an ideal vehicle with which to display the individual and corporate virtuosity of the SFS and the strength of their partnership with Tilson Thomas, now in his 19th season as their music director. It was a thoughtfully chosen programme because it showcased the music of three great musical innovators – four, if you count Beethoven, whose music inspired the Adams piece – and, indeed, a case could be made for describing most, if not all, of these composers as mavericks as well as innovators.

We began with the shortest movement from Henry Brant’s orchestration of the ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata of Charles Ives. Brant (1913-2008), who was himself a radical composer, spent nearly forty years working on his orchestral version of Ives’s sonata and in a pre-concert interview on the Symphony Hall website,  Michael Tilson Thomas described Brant’s work as a ‘brilliant job’. I had not heard this piece before but I loved it. The scoring is rich, resourceful and full of colour and often carries echoes of American music of the Great Outdoors: anyone who likes Copland should like this. The piece, though only some six minutes in length, is packed with incident and both the music and the orchestration are highly imaginative. The performance offered an early opportunity for the SFS to set out their stall: the strings made a wonderfully rich sound, the brass were powerful without ever sounding domineering, and the woodwind were in this case mellifluous though later in the programme they would also display great agility. Above all, I was struck by the marvellous depth of tone produced by the cellos and basses; this was the bedrock on which the sound of the whole orchestra was founded. I don’t know the original piano version well enough to comment but I wonder if Brant’s orchestral re-imagining of the score has, at least in this movement, taken some of the edge off the original – though I hasten to add that I don’t say this in a critical sense. I discovered after the concert that Kirk McElhearn has commented, in reviewing a recording of the full symphony by another orchestra, that Brant has translated the sonata into another form. Conducted here by a renowned Ives specialist, the results were superb and I am keen to hear the whole symphony in Tilson Thomas’s own recording with the SFS, which Kirk rated very highly (review).

John Adams wrote Absolute Jest for the centenary of the SFS in 2011 but since then he has completely rewritten the opening portion of the work, the revision extending to some 400 or 500 bars of new music. This may well have been the UK premiere of the revised version. Adams took as his inspiration his long lasting love of Beethoven’s late string quartets and the score of Absolute Jest is riddled with allusions to these works. In saying that, I think one has to know the Beethoven scores pretty well – and better than I do – to spot all the allusions but even if one doesn’t have that in-depth knowledge one can discern quite readily when Beethovenian fragments are being played or elaborated. There are also allusions to material from the scherzi of the Fourth and Ninth symphonies.

The string quartet, which is kept very busy throughout almost the entire score, was seated immediately in front of the podium. In his programme note Adams referred to the problem of balancing the four players against a very large orchestra. On this occasion this was solved by amplifying the quartet but this was done in a discreet fashion so one was not excessively conscious of the amplification. I’m an admirer of John Adams’ music so I hoped – and expected – to enjoy the piece and I wasn’t disappointed. What struck me forcibly as I listened was how well matched, how complementary, are Adams’ and Beethoven’s music in the sense that both make such a virtue of the use of rhythm to impel their music. It seems so obvious that I don’t know why I’ve not previously made the connection but the juxtaposition of the two composers in Absolute Jest brought it home very strongly.

In the aforementioned interview Tilson Thomas described the work as one of the composer’s most profound. That it may well be; it’s certainly a virtuoso work. However, what struck me on a first hearing – and this is not to suggest a lack of profundity – was how entertaining and witty the score was: it is well entitled ‘Jest’. Much of the music is high-spirited and full of vitality and at times it is clearly rhythmically intricate, as one could tell from MTT’s beat. There was a great deal of very active writing for the quartet and the leader and cellist in particular were frequently given demanding solos. As for the orchestral accompaniment, much of it was marked by Adams’s trademark propulsive rhythmical drive but there was much inventive colour and I thought the score was very well imagined for the orchestra. In the fast sections particularly I thought – as I have many times before – that Adams is the true heir to Ives in terms of originality and, frankly, his often zany style.

After a good deal of busy music a brief, slower section dominated by the quartet, initially accompanied by tuned and un-tuned percussion, seems to act as both slow movement and cadenza. The orchestra becomes involved in this slow episode after a while and the music then accelerates into hyperactivity in a way that put me in mind of Shaker Loops and, later, of Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The work seems to be heading for a tumultuous end and then, in a masterstroke, Adams cuts off the quartet and full orchestra and the last word – a quiet one – is provided by the deliberately mis-tuned piano and harp.

I enjoyed Absolute Jest greatly and I’m impatient to hear it again. So far as I could tell on a first hearing it received a fabulously virtuosic and committed performance from both the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the orchestra. I was delighted to see that the Birmingham audience gave the piece a very warm reception.

After we’d all got our breath back during the interval Tilson Thomas conducted a work that he says is in his bone: Symphonie Fantastique. This is a score tailor-made to show off a virtuoso orchestra and that was achieved here. However, I mustn’t give the impression that MTT treated it as a ‘mere’ showpiece for such was not the case. The introduction to the first movement was shaped delicately and with great finesse in the playing. The different hues of Berlioz’s amazingly original scoring were expertly realised. When the main allegro was reached the reading was lithe. The San Francisco woodwinds had ample opportunity to show their agility and the strings were capable of great dexterity without ever sacrificing their natural sheen and lustrous tone.

The waltz was elegant and graceful, though I would have loved it if the two harps had been positioned on either side of the orchestra instead of side by side: Leonard Slatkin does this on his recent recording and the results are wonderful (review). Tilson Thomas ensured that the waltz was moulded winningly, the music always light on its feet. There was much marvellously nuanced playing in a highly atmospheric account of the Scène aux champs. Here was poetry but always allied to expert technical control. I’ve heard some other conductors impart a touch more menace into the March au supplice, usually by adopting a slightly more deliberate tempo than was chosen here. The march was quick-ish but even if it lacked a degree of menace it was still powerfully projected.

The concluding Songe d’une nuit de sabbat was begun attacca and at the outset one had the feeling that ghosts and spectres were about as MTT and the orchestra invested the music with considerable atmosphere. As the movement unfolded Berlioz’s feverish imagination was allowed to run riot though the playing was consistently disciplined. This was a thrilling performance, full of colour, power and precision yet through it all Tilson Thomas appeared super-cool as he unleashed his orchestra. Here, as throughout the concert, his conducting was clear, precise and elegant.

After such an exciting conclusion Tilson Thomas wisely brought the temperature down by several notches. As an encore we were treated to a winning performance of the ‘Saturday Night Waltz’ from Copland’s Rodeo Dance Episodes.

This was a memorable concert. One can only envy the music lovers of San Francisco who can regularly hear this wonderful orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas has clearly built on the great work of his two immediate predecessors, Edo de Waart and Herbert Blomstedt, and San Francisco has an orchestra that is truly world class.  Details of the remaining concerts on their European tour can be fund here. If you live within range of any of these venues try to catch this fine ensemble and their music director – if you can get a ticket, that is!

John Quinn