Sparks from Wang and Tilson Thomas in Prokofiev and Debussy

United StatesUnited States Fauré, Schubert, Dvořák, Grieg, Prokofiev, Litolff, Debussy: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 24.5.2014 (HS)

Fauré: Pavane
Schubert: Entr’acte No. 3 in B-flat major from Rosamunde
Dvořák: Legend No. 6, from Legends for Orchestra
Grieg: The Last Spring
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1
Litolff: Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4
Debussy: Images

In his 15 years at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas has been nothing if not daring in his programming. He often finds telling links between pieces, and tends to choose unfamiliar but nearly always winning fare. But he’s never before taken as a model for a symphony orchestra concert the sort of recital great soloists used to do—a parade of familiar shorter works—and woven in connections that repay extra thought.

Back in the first half of the 20th century, orchestral concerts often gave us the likes of “Swan of Tuonela” followed by the “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila, a showoff concerto and then a longer symphony after intermission. Tilson Thomas remembers those programs, too, in opening remarks Thursday for this week’s subscription concerts. He also remembers great soloists such as Jascha Heifitz and Artur Rubinstein in master classes, revealing how much intense thought and effort they poured into shorter works we nowadays think of chiefly as encores. “In rehearsal this week the virtuoso musicians of our orchestra have been lavishing on this music that same sort of care,” he concluded.

And indeed they did, beginning with flutist Robin McKee’s beautifully burnished, effortlessly spun low-register solo against pulsing strings in Fauré’s Pavane. The delicacy by all hands was mesmerizing, as was Schubert’s gently singing and swaying Entr’acte No. 3, the string sections playing with appealing unanimity in the sweetest and most modest of the entr’actes from his score to Rosamunde. Dvořák’s Legend No. 6, with its pulsing triplets, finally introduced some motion beyond moderato, but it did not last long, as it finished with hushed, sustained chords. Grieg’s “The Last Spring,” rather than evoking a renewal of life after winter, carries a mostly melancholy, wistful feeling for springs past. Every time the music threatens to pick up steam, it sighs and slows. The performance caught all of that.

These pieces felt like the lull before the storm, which arrived when pianist Yuja Wang launched into the big-boned, broad opening measures of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1. A wisp of a woman whose fashion sense favors attire to show off her slender frame (this time a long form-fitting sheer number in black that flared into a train around her 6-inch heels—I mention this only because she makes a point of it herself), she can still bring phenomenal power to the concerto’s opening statement in double octaves, phrasing the big gestures with subtle nuances and thrusts that propel the music as if with after-jets.

When the piano breaks away into more complex, adventurous and even at times polytonal displays against the steady accompaniment of the orchestra, her ability to articulate every note in rapid runs and turns made for eye-popping listening. This is bravura music, and she gave it brilliant detail. Many pianists can whale their way through it, slashing and grinding, but few can find its deftness. Wang can. The communication between her and Tilson Thomas made it feel as if it were bursting out from somewhere in the ether fully formed, instead of being read off a page.

At 15 minutes the three movements (played without break) made for an awfully quick solo turn, so the program built in a ready-made encore: the Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4 by Henry Litolff. This dazzling showpiece, once ubiquitous on pops concerts, keeps things moving in a bouncy 6/8 and the pianist’s fingers in almost constant flurry. It’s hard to hear a performance as bracing as Wang’s was without grinning from ear to ear.

After intermission came the “meat” of the concert, Images, Debussy’s three-part foray into musical impressionism. Begun as a two-piano work the same year as the more oft-played La Mer, it took the composer seven more years to wrestle the idea into the form we know—an orchestral suite of scene paintings. Even then, the portion usually performed these days is “Iberia,” itself a colorful triptych full of Spanish flair and life. Performances of “Rondes de printemps,” as dark an evocation of spring as Grieg’s, are much rarer.

Connections between the four short orchestral pieces of this program and these elements are easier to discern in retrospect. Debussy’s “Gigues,” a treatment of a usually joyful dance turned into something almost wistful, echoes the melancholy rendition of spring in the Grieg. The Fauré’s somber edge anticipates that of “Par les rues et par les chemins” (the first section of Iberia), and the gossamer haze of the next movement, “Les parfums de la nuit,” has the same lilting gentleness as Schubert’s entr’acte. You could say the Dvořák shares the sense of anticipation of the final section of Iberia, “Le matin de jour de fête.”

Whether all these connections were intentional on MTT’s part, they provided a subliminal sense of structure and could be responsible for that extra lift to the performance of Images. All the colors were beautifully rendered, the harmonies sounding supple and the melodic lines articulated with clarity. It may not have the grand moments of La Mer, but it came off as vintage Debussy.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment