United States Britten, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Colin Matthews, Gershwin: Yuja Wang (piano), Philip Cobb (trumpet), London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 22-23.3.2015 (HS)
Program 22 March
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major
Wang encore: Mozart-Volodos: Turkish March
Program 23 March
Colin Matthews: Hidden Variables
Gershwin: Concerto in F
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor
Wang encore: Michael Tilson Thomas: You Come Here Often?
Michael Tilson Thomas arrived as music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, when he stepped down as conductor of the London Symphony. He retained his ties with the LSO as a principal guest conductor, so to celebrate his 70th birthday, Tilson Thomas is leading the London ensemble on an American tour. They reached his home base in San Francisco Sunday and Monday, the group’s first visit to San Francisco under Tilson Thomas.
No doubt, he brought Yuja Wang along to add a little extra dazzle to the occasion. She has established a rich artistic partnership, having appeared with the orchestra every year starting in 2006, and at least four times with Tilson Thomas here in the past year, including opening night last September.
Her brilliant romp through the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 outshone the other elements on Sunday night’s program. And her sassy take on Gershwin’s Concerto in F on Monday, coupled with Tilson Thomas’ own penchant for letting jazz elements come through, made for one of the finest performances of this work that I’ve heard.
The Shostakovich concerto reveals the composer at his slyest and most impudent, lampooning classical musical tropes at every turn while simultaneously presenting the soloist with tricky technical challenges and, most rewardingly, creating moment after moment of genuine musical emotion. Each pastiche of composers including Bach, Rossini, Beethoven and Mahler seems to frame itself into something both sweet and pungent.
Playing from a score, crumpled from the quick page turns she accomplished herself, Wang combined melodic and rhythmic precision—the punch of dynamic shifts and the sheer joy of making this rapid-fire puzzle into something palpable. Clearly she was having a great time with the musical jokes. From the podium, Tilson Thomas drew a delightful sense of lightness and crispness from the string orchestra, keeping the rhythmic bite chomping merrily.
By contrast, soloist Philip Cobb, LSO’s principal trumpet, was utterly deadpan. Shostakovich originally conceived the piece as a trumpet concerto, but as it developed the piano became more prominent. Cobb’s playing was stunningly precise, with perfect articulation and intonation, even real emotional depth in the slower, more soulful phrases that end the first moment and weave through the second. In the finale’s high-spirited fanfares that bounce from trumpet to piano and back again, Cobb looked a little too serious. It might have been magnificent deadpan—the sullen soloist resenting the loss of the spotlight—but a little more vigor in stage presence would have paid dividends.
In the Gershwin Concerto, Wang got things off to a crackling start with cascades of octave runs, and never let up. The pianist’s vitality with the disparate themes and elements of the opening movement gave way to a perfectly moody, bluesy slow movement, enhanced by Cobb’s deliciously filthy trumpet solo. The finale, a rondo that brings back all the key themes, became a wonderful back and forth with Wang and Tilson Thomas playing “Can you top this?” Wang’s quiet introduction of the big tune for the long coda was nicely understated, which allowed the buildup to the final iteration of that tune to reach the intended climax.
For an encore after the Shostakovich she played Arcadi Volodos’ brilliant and stupefyingly difficult pianistic gloss on Mozart’s “Turkish March” with élan, a nice complement to the concerto’s wit. After the Gershwin she applied equal flair to Tilson Thomas’ finger-busting You Come Here Often?, a jazzy étude he wrote for her, flipping the “pages” on an iPad in a blur of precision and flair.
For the rest of the two evenings, the LSO seemed to aim for the most robust, richest textures. In the first concert they started loud and stayed loud, impressive sonically but the lack of dynamic contrast took some of the drama out of the opener, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and the second half, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. There were wonderful moments, to be sure. The opening chords of “Moonlight,” the third of the interludes, surged like the sea, but with no holding back dynamics in the first three interludes, the “Storm” finale lost some of its power.
Some of the same issues kept the Sibelius from becoming a cohesive whole. There was a nice moment at the start, where the soft repeated chords recalled “Moonlight,” but pretty soon the LSO winds and brass were flexing their muscles and even the strings were digging in to achieve ultra-rich sound. The effect was impressive, but by the time the finale’s climaxes arrived, though each section sounded great, the cumulative effect was wearing rather than uplifting.
Hidden Variables, Colin Matthews’ deconstruction of minimalism (and other 20th century musical tropes), opened the second concert. Written in 1989 for chamber ensemble and expanded for full orchestra in 1992, the piece seemed to be aimed squarely at tweaking the American composer John Adams. The rapping of a wood block brought to mind “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and other gestures parodied Harmonielehre, which had debuted only a few years earlier. This is a curious piece to bring to Northern California, where Adams makes his home. It’s rambunctious music—cheeky and often clever—though it has long stretches where it just clatters. The orchestra’s dense textures didn’t help, either.
The orchestra’s big sound, however, paid off in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, which Tilson Thomas has conducted several times to great effect with his San Francisco orchestra. It’s all about big gestures, especially in the outsized outer sections. In the first movement, Tilson Thomas drew much better dynamic contrasts in the themes, resulting in a great sense of forward motion. At the end, the celesta’s dissipation into delicate echoes of chromatic scales was magical.
The sardonic second movement had appropriate swagger and bite, and an unhurried, lavishly recumbent approach to the slow movement provided a healing breather before the hard-edge finale. Starting off at a trudge suggested that the seemingly joyful finale really was forced upon the people by an oppressive government, which today is the generally accepted reading of this work. The oversized fanfares and chorales of the final pages drove the point home with terrifying intensity.
For some reason, the orchestral encore both nights was Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1. It sounded livelier and more refreshing after the Shostakovich.
After all that, what keeps running through my head after two arresting evenings? That bluesy slow movement of the Gershwin concerto, a combination of delicacy and grace that was such a contrast to much of the rest.