Vivid Colors from the San Franciscans

United StatesUnited States Mahler, Samuel Adams, Prokofiev, Ravel: Samuel Adams (sound design), Gil Shaham (violin), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 20-21.11.2014 (BH)

Nov. 20

Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor (1904-1905)

Nov. 21

Samuel Adams: Drift and Providence (2011-2012, New York premiere)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (1935)
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (complete) (1909-1912)

Next year, Michael Tilson Thomas marks his 20th year leading the San Francisco Symphony, and brought to Carnegie Hall two programs: one showing his expertise in Mahler, and a second with a marvelous new piece by an American composer who is not quite 30 years old.

Thomas’s Mahler cycle with the orchestra is well regarded, and this reading of Mahler’s “difficult” Seventh Symphony made a strong case for its disparate parts fitting together. At more relaxed tempos, it clocked in at slightly more than the 80 minutes listed in the program. The defiant collisions of marches, the slightly cheesy themes drifting by, cowbells offstage—all were happily, energetically in place. Massive tuttis were offset by some lucid solos, especially from concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and principal viola Jonathan Vinocour, the latter showing particular warmth. And though I seem to be in the minority, sometimes, in my admiration for the luridly triumphant finale, Thomas and the players—especially the ensemble’s brass contingent and tympani—gave it a rousing glow.

The friend with me on this occasion had never heard any Mahler live, and enjoyed it immensely—even recognizing some of the score’s banal elements—contrary to conventional wisdom that suggests the Seventh may not be the best choice for those new to the composer. Yet in some ways, the symphony’s odd palette (including mandolin and guitar), craziness, and sheer sprawl might make it the most Mahlerian of the lot.

On the second night, a premiere was the evening’s hit: Samuel Adams’s Drift and Providence, a 20-minute meditation inspired by the ocean. Opening with a startlingly visceral amalgam of automobile brake drums, sizzle cymbals and cowbells, the orchestra slowly unfolds waves of shimmering textures, all with subtle electronic processing in real time (by the composer) to ravishing effect. And though this was but a single hearing, I would swear I heard a motif from Debussy’s La Mer rising up through the constantly churning surface.

In Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, the ever-amiable Gil Shaham offered the quietest version I have heard in years, with Thomas reining in the orchestra to accommodate him. Shaham has a lovely tone, intonation that consistently rings true, and judging from his expressions and brief interactions with the concertmaster, he was having a great time. But there wasn’t quite enough of the bite and weirdness that make this piece memorable.

For Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, the stage was blanketed with a massive ensemble, the glittering textures were in place, the New York Choral Artists offered their wordless contribution splendidly, and yet, somehow the ecstatic heights possible didn’t arrive as frequently as they should. Ravel’s masterful ebb and flow needs equal parts of languor and tension, and here, I sensed more of the former, rather than the latter.

Bruce Hodges

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