United States Cage, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky: Janine Jansens (violin), Peabody Southwell (mezzo-soprano), Matthew Newlin (tenor), Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 14.5.2015 (HS)
Cage: The Seasons
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor
Of all the composers who took a shot at creating music inspired by Vivaldi’s iconic The Four Seasons, perhaps the least likely was John Cage. Best known for his music based on chance, much of it not even notated, and a fascination with rhythm over harmony, Cage in the 1940s found an enthusiastic collaborator in the choreographer Merce Cunningham, for whom he wrote several pieces for percussion and prepared piano. In 1947, however, he surprised everyone by painting tone-pictures of winter, spring, summer and autumn in The Seasons, an engaging, lyrical, ear-seducing work for Cunningham’s dance company.
In its quarter-hour, The Seasons also expresses Cage’s growing fascination at the time with the music of India. Rather than picture an idyllic spring and a lazy summer, as Vivaldi did, Cage aimed for an evocation of what he understood as an Indian perception of the seasons—quiescence for winter, creation for spring, preservation for summer and destruction for autumn.
A carefully etched performance opened the San Francisco Symphony’s subscription program this week. Heard Thursday, the orchestra and music director Michael Tilson Thomas gave a sense of easy rhythmic sway on this charming, accessible music. Like Vivaldi, Cage infuses the score with plenty of color, using vivid instrumentation to evoke the gurgles of a brook in spring, or the time-standing-still torpor of summer. Only some tough dissonances in “Autumn” produced anything remotely challenging to the ear, and unusually for Cage, it all wraps up into neat restatement of the music that opens the piece.
At the other end of the program was another twentieth-century composer’s rethinking of music from the Baroque era, also intended for the dance theatre. In Pulcinella Stravinsky reworked the music of Pergolesi and some of his contemporaries into a pungent 20th-century pastiche.
Although most often heard in a suite that trims away the vocal music, the original version contains nine arias, mostly based on tunes by Pergolesi. The rest of the music actually originated mainly from the pens of Gallo, Monza, Parisotti and Van Wassenaer. Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell lavished a rich lower range on the pastoral “Mentre l’erbetta” to set an assured tone for the other singers, which included fine contributions from tenor Matthew Newlin and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (who will also be heard in the orchestra’s semi-staged Fidelio next month)
The vigor and unhurried orchestral interplay in Pulcinella included the intertwined flutes of Tim Day and Robin McKee, lower-key jousting between Scott Pingel (bass) and Timothy Higgins (trombone), and the trumpet precision of Mark Inouye atop the lively and triumphant finale.
As colorful as all this music was, violinist Janine Jansens’ foray into the familiar paces of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, the concert’s centerpiece, came off as well made but tasting of little more than vanilla. The Dutch artist played it all with accuracy and rhythmic precision, even at the rapid pace set by Tilson Thomas. It was all in place, no muss, no fuss. What was missing was that extra bit of Mendelssohnian magic that can sprinkle fairy dust over the sprightly opening bars of the finale, or find contrast in the wispy clouds of the opening theme with the brief hints of thunder in the second.