San Francisco Symphony Performs Memorably in Berlin

GermanyGermany Schoenberg, Adams, Beethoven: St. Lawrence String Quartet, San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas, Berlin Musikfest 2015, Philharmonie, Berlin 4.9.15 (MC)

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony performing Mahler's Symphony No. 5 on September 3, 2010 in Davies Symphony Hall. photo: Bill Swerbenski
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony
c Bill Swerbenski

Schoenberg: ‘Variations’, Op. 43b
Adams: Absolute Jest                                                                                                             
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’

This concert programme from the visiting San Francisco Symphony was tailor made for me. A rarely heard work from a radical composer to satisfy my curiosity, a newly written score to satisfy my commitment to contemporary music and a masterpiece of the repertoire to satisfy my thirst for traditional compositional excellence.

First the Schoenberg Variations for orchestra, a work originally scored for wind band and soon re-scored for orchestra. One of the composer’s most accessible scores, containing dissonant serial techniques, this set of variations contains a curious mix of invigorating sounds reminding me strongly of the sound world of Charles Ives. Setting the tone in Schoenberg’s challenging writing was the magnificent chorus of brilliant brass that opened the work with the orchestra under Tilson Thomas maintaining a consistently high performance standard. Full of adventure and with some especially lovely solo passages I can’t wait to hear this engaging work again soon.

John Adams describes Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra as “a colossal twenty-five minute Scherzo.” In 2012 Adams was inspired by Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a work which reworks themes by eighteenth-century Italian composers (thought at one time to be by Pergolesi). In Absolute Jest Adams uses his love of Beethoven by taking and cleverly developing material from the Scherzos of the String Quartets, Op. 131, 135 and the Große Fuge, together with the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies and ‘WaldsteinSonata. In his scoring Adams has chosen to employ a string quartet with a symphony orchestra, a rarely encountered combination in the concert hall. Specifically Adams’s instrumentation requires the string quartet to be slightly amplified together with winds, percussion, celesta, strings and specially tuned piano and harp. Here the Saint Lawrence String Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas gave a special performance of this captivating work. In writing that bristles strongly with infectious ideas the striking playing has unquenchable, vital rhythmic energy yet remains stylishly unified. Opening with a shimmering atmospheric character Adams’s music sounds at times like the soundtrack to a Hitchcock thriller. Overall it is the propulsive forward momentum, unrelenting and vigorous that is the most remarkable aspect of the writing. I was able to recognise most of the Beethoven quotations reworked by Adams with the motto from the Scherzo of the String Quartet, Op. 135 coming across as the most prominent. In truth some of Adam’s motifs were overdone to the point of tedium. Throughout I had little problem hearing the amplified string quartet amid the sound of the orchestra although at one point the mixing desk volume switch seemed to slip causing a momentary ear-piercing screech. Rather incongruously against the formally dressed orchestra players was the strange choice of the three male quartet members to wear casual clothes with the woman violist in evening dress. Getting carried away with his rather distracting enthusiasm was the animated quartet leader whose left leg seemed to have a mind of its own.

After the interval the assured Tilson Thomas directed a memorable account of Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’. A frequently heard work in the concert hall it is well known that Beethoven originally dedicated his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte before tearing up the page and replacing it with the title ‘Eroica’. Experience has shown it is not uncommon to encounter routine and lacklustre performances but it was clear that Tilson Thomas fully appreciates that this progressive score from 1803 is music of considerable concentration and as the designation might suggest heroic power. With judicious use of vibrato I particularly relished the fresh and invigorating performance of the Allegro that conveyed a sense of defiance in the face of adversity. The pulse Tilson Thomas gave to the renowned Marche funèbre was unerring with the basses adding a remarkable sense of dark foreboding. In the Scherzo the potency of the playing communicated a fresh and blustery quality reminding me of verdant alpine valleys. In the Finale it felt as if the spirit of life had broken free with the orchestra’s fiery power making a compelling impact.

Michael Cookson

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