Wong, Berg, Brahms: Yefim Bronfman (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Joshua Gersen (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 21.1.2015 (HS)
Brahms’ 4-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 has the gravitas and cohesive development of a major symphony, with the added grace of a terrific piano part. At 50 minutes it usually occupies the second half of a concert instead of the pre-intermission spot assigned to most concertos.
A concert’s first half allows for a piece about the length of a typical concerto, and in this program it was Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. In opening remarks, Michael Tilson Thomas told the audience this challenging music was one of his favorites. Imagine, the conductor suggested, if Mahler had written a 12th and 13th symphony, and then they were played simultaneously. That would be a fair description of Berg’s 1914 work, his last under the tutelage and mentorship of Arnold Schoenberg. It was a rousing choice.
The music unabashedly springs from Mahler’s hyper-romantic style, and the opening movement comes close to quoting verbatim a passage from his Ninth Symphony. The second movement is rooted in the Viennese waltz, albeit with more pungent harmonies than Johann Strauss might have used. The finale stitches together fragments of march music that come and go quickly.
The performance was wondrous. The Praeludium morphed quietly from barely-heard drum thumps and bumps to pitched reflections of the same gestures in brass-clef instruments, building seamlessly to a frightening climax. The long, slow decrescendo back to the quiet thuds was achingly achieved.
In the second movement, the waltzes emerged haltingly from a fog of swirling harmonies and pulses. The complex music, darting this way and that, subsided into languor, reemerging with quiet background commentary from the brass. In Tilson Thomas’ hands it took on a sense of inevitability.
All the near-quotes of Mahler marches can make the finale feel like a kaleidoscope, turning incessantly. In this performance, the magic poured out as if from a single tap, each one still showing its distinct color and personality. The final nod to Mahler, hammer blows on a big wooden box, goes Mahler a few better. These “blows of fate” in the Sixth Symphony occur only three times, but this performance relished the big climaxes as Berg lets loose again and again.
All this energy seemed to carry over into the concert’s second half. With Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard the Brahms concerto launched with barely controlled power and never flagged. The more delicate moments lightened up but never lost momentum.
With his formidable technical command, Bronfman found a rich palette of piano timbres, a muscular pulse and crystalline embroidery of rapid-moving filigrees, and Tilson Thomas and the orchestra were in sync both technically and expressively. This was red-blooded Brahms, dressed nicely in formal clothing. The slow movement’s extended duets between the piano and cello came off with simple clarity. Principal cellist Michael Grebanier matched Bronfman’s refinement with a seemingly endless reserve of intensity.
The program opener, Carnival Fever, a new work from Cynthia Lee Wong, used an outsized orchestra to display colorful sonorities for some clever pastiches of famous pieces depicting carnival scenes. Wong is the second composer selected in the New Voices Initiative, a project involving San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony along with the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. References to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Gershwin’s An American in Paris flew by in a 7-minute blur, tiny scenes cutting rapidly to the next in a musical language that balanced dissonant harmonies with snappy, ever-shifting rhythms.
A more enthusiastic audience response than the polite applause that followed might have greeted Wong if she had focused more on a few of the better ideas. Joshua Gersen, most recently Tilson Thomas’ assistant conductor at the New World Symphony, led an enthusiastic if somewhat clangorous performance.