Invigorating Schumann First Eclipses Brahms Violin Concerto

United StatesUnited States John Luther Adams, Brahms, Schumann: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Christian Baldini (conductor for Adams), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 26.2.2015 (HS)

John Luther Adams: The Light That Fills the World
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major
Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major “Spring”

Michael Tilson Thomas has conducted precious little Schumann in his 20 years as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Let’s hope the invigorating performance of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, heard in Thursday’s subscription concert, won’t be the last. The music came through with brilliant color, a marvel of contrasts that somehow coalesced into a coherent, virile approach.

Schumann had pictorial ideas in mind when he wrote this work, inspired by one of the Spring Ballads by Adolf Böttger. Maybe it’s the unusually mild February weather that San Francisco has enjoyed in the past couple of weeks, but the music seemed perfectly attuned to these conditions. The sense of flowering and energizing as the music evolved from one movement to the next reflected the budding greenery and flowering trees seen around town. Was it my imagination, or did the foreboding fanfare at the opening, which returns like a talisman throughout, also allude to the pending drought portended by so much fair weather?

Either way, the musical rewards were plenty. In the first movement, Schumann’s stentorian fanfare, the gradual quickening of the pace into the exposition’s main tunes, the false start of the development, even the lovely oboe tune that emerges out of nowhere seemed to flow from an open tap. Every gesture seemed utterly natural, and the acceleration at the end of the movement reached a level of momentum that drew a “bravo” from a single voice from somewhere far back in the hall.

Tilson Thomas acknowledged the audience member with a tip of his baton, pretended to walk off stage, and waited for the titters to die down. He eased into the nocturne-like slow movement with the sort of grace and delicacy that called to mind Mendelssohn’s most engaging moments. The bumptious dances of the Scherzo, and their contrasting pair of trios, lightened the mood further, before the finale established a marvelous sense of jubilation. Throughout, the playing, especially the busy woodwinds, achieved precision without losing a robust sensibility.

The same, however, could not be said of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s excursion into Brahms’ Violin Concerto in the program’s first half. The scowl on the violinist’s face as she played seemed to mirror her fierce approach to the music. She dug into the louder pages with dark tone, almost angry, stopping just short of distorting the tone as some of her more demonstrative colleagues might. She never lost control, placed every note with clean intonation and breathed life into softer passages. Tempos were slower than most, creating a heavy atmosphere. Even the lyrical passages seemed gloomy.

Mutter’s dead seriousness seemed at odds with her sunny lemon meringue-yellow performance gown, with its billowing bow at the back. Despite an impeccable traversal of this monumental concerto, the music was utterly lacking in joy. Much better was the encore, a fleet, breathtakingly pure dash through the finale Gigue of Bach’s Partita in D minor. After the unexpected melancholy of the Brahms, it made a pleasant sip of bright tea.

The program opened with a 1998 work by John Luther Adams, The Light That Fills the World. Like much of this American composer’s music, it was inspired by the stark, majestic landscapes of Alaska. Although a full-orchestra version exists, seven members of the symphony played a version which, despite the stillness and lack of propulsion in the music, required the services of a conductor. Christian Baldini, who has been serving as Tilson Thomas’ cover this season, led the ensemble of two basses, vibraphone, marimba, contrabassoon, violin and what was identified as a “portative organ.” The wheezing sonorities of this instrument, which looked like the console of a normal electronic organ, did no favors to the quiet contemplation of Adams’ music, a resolutely minimalist piece that formed white-note dissonances into chords that evolved at a glacial pace for 13 minutes. Anyone waiting for something to happen was surely disappointed.

Harvey Steiman

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