San Francisco Symphony’s Schoenberg Particularly Impressive

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (20) – Schoenberg, Adams, Mahler: St Lawrence String Quartet, San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Usher Hall, 27.8.2015 (SRT)

Schoenberg: Theme and Variations, Op. 39b
Adams: Absolute Jest
Mahler: Symphony No. 1

I came to this concert with high hopes but left feeling rather surprised.  I love the music – John Adams, for one thing – but I found this piece unsatisfying.  Written in 2011 for the San Francisco Symphony’s centenary, it’s an interesting idea, using some elements of Beethoven’s music as inspiration for Adams to make his own musical riffs.  It starts well (with a huge chunk that Adams revised after the premiere), with an opening of electrical energy that generates a charge all of its own. Barring a more mysterious, sometimes spooky central section, however, most of the work felt fairly monotonous. Adams’ trademark rhythmic chugging and repetitions are never far from the scene, but they come to dominate the final section too much, as though the composer had been so pleased with his initial creative idea that he had eventually run out of inspiration of what to do with it.

Nor did I buy the way Adams used his structure.  It’s effectively a concerto for orchestra and string quartet, but he doesn’t come up with an innovative or effective way to redress the inevitable problems of balance.  Instead, tonight’s performance relied on amplification of the quartet (though I don’t know whether that was the performers’ idea or the composer’s), which not only feels like a cop-out but often sounds bizarre, especially during the Quartet’s unaccompanied cadenza passage. The St Lawrence String Quartet undeniably played well and were exciting to watch, especially their flamboyant leader, Geoff Nuttall; but overall, this piece left me cold, and they couldn’t save it.

Mahler’s first symphony sounded great from this orchestra, with a wonderfully eerie funeral march and top-notch brass, whose breakout moments in the first and last movements sounded great: I especially loved the moment where the finale’s main chorale theme appears gently, as if from the distance, and then steadily grows to bring the house down in the final bars.  Tilson Thomas is an experienced Mahlerian, but I had my doubts about his approach here, and the extremities of this symphony felt wrong.  The introduction felt rushed with little space to linger and relish the Naturlaut environment, and I didn’t really buy his pacing of the finale.  The recurrences of the chorale seemed to appear with little preparation, and the final bars lacked the final ounce of excitement.  It’s hard to go wrong with that ending, of course, but in this case it was red hot rather than white hot.

All of which means that, somewhat to my surprise, the section of tonight’s concert that I enjoyed most was Schoenberg’s Theme and Variations.   In fact, this showed the orchestra off brilliantly, with lovely brass sound for the theme itself, and lots of sparkle and glint in the rest of the piece, and not just from the percussion.  Their sound was impressively clean, like a distinct set of sections working together for the greater good, similar to a brilliant machine.  That distinctiveness was especially advantageous during the fugal variation, and the cohesiveness of the ending was very impressive, Schoenberg pretending to be Strauss, and just about getting away with it.

The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city.  For full details go to

Simon Thompson

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