Crystalline Chopin from Wang, and Focus in Bruckner 7

United StatesUnited States Tilson Thomas, Chopin, Bruckner: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 1.11.2016. (HS)

Tilson Thomas – Agnegram (revised 2016)

Chopin – Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21

Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 in E major

As the San Francisco Symphony prepares to leave for a tour of six Asian cities, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Yuja Wang gave their local audience a taste of some of the repertoire, including Chopin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, which she will play with the orchestra in Taiwan, Beijing, Osaka, and Tokyo.

Wang and Tilson Thomas have developed a strong musical affinity, having appeared together several times a year since her debut with the orchestra in 2006. Synchronicity was on display again with this, her fourth assignment with the orchestra this year. Wang favored crystal-clear articulation and deft phrasing, which Tilson Thomas abetted by smoothing the edges of Chopin’s straightforward orchestral writing.

All it took was a breathtakingly pure encore of Chopin’s famous Waltz in C-Sharp Minor to demonstrate what was missing in the concerto—liquidity. Wang’s formidable technique—it always feels as though she can play any phrase faster and with more precision than anyone—shone a white spotlight, when the music might have benefited from warmer tones. Where her encore had a sense of suppressed urgency, the concerto felt like it was out for a morning run.

Maybe it was the dress. Wang, famously a fashionista, appeared in a long, form-fitting, sparkly-white-gold backless number, which looked great as she sat ramrod-straight at the piano bench. My wife remarked that she could have outshone the beautiful art deco Chrysler Building, but similar to that icon, she looked rigid, rather than supple. The music came out with a hard edge, too.

The best part of the concerto was the central Larghetto, which let some warmth shine through. The orchestra role, largely chords, receded into the background and Wang’s eloquence made the nocturne-like narrative sing quietly. The razzle-dazzle of the finale danced with precision, if not quite the abandon one could hope for. The encore made up for it.

Bruckner has only recently played a role in Tilson Thomas’ 21-year tenure as music director. For years he left that wing of the repertoire to conductor-laureate Herbert Blomstedt. In the Seventh Symphony, sprawling in form and packed with long-limbed brass passages, the approaches of the two conductors could not be more different. Where Blomstedt favored heartfelt spirituality, Tilson Thomas yielded sustained intensity and brought the architecture into clear focus.

The orchestra reveled in Bruckner’s sound world, the slow brass fanfares and chorales contrasting with woodwind murmurings, the strings carefully morphing from whispers to oceanic swells. Here again, the slow movement was the soulful centerpiece. The Adagio, which introduces the sound of Wagner tubas to an already rich brass array, created a warm glow at a pace that was neither unhurried nor indulgent.

A Bruckner symphony is an exercise in crests, and Tilson Thomas found ways to give each approach to a climax a different color. By the time the ensemble reached the finish, with rising figures gaining momentum step by step, the return of the brass figures that started the journey, 60 minutes previously, was simply glorious.

The opener was a six-minute march-like scherzo, Agnegram, which the conductor wrote twenty years ago to honor a longtime board member. The revised version, heard here for the first time, interpolated additional pastiche moments (allusions to Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and an Irish lullaby) into a new central trio. Packed with fun, the orchestra played it with appropriate high spirits.

Harvey Steiman

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