Tilson Thomas Goes to ‘Nothingtown’ (and More Exciting Places)

United StatesUnited States Gnesin, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Gautier Capuçon (cello), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 1.3.2017. (HS)

Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin – The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of Nothingtown (1926)
Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.1
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.6, Pathétique

Cellist Gautier Capuçon drew muscular, expansive sounds from his 1701 Matteo Goffriller instrument, applying bravura and impeccable technique to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, that was the highlight of a strong San Francisco Symphony program Wednesday night in Davies Symphony Hall.

Capuçon has large hands, long black hair and dashing good looks, but what mattered from the first staccato statement – derived from the composer’s oft-used “DSCH” motif – was his ability to balance precision with expression. Rather than invest those opening notes with portent, he let the music develop from a sense of jaunty innocence into the complex labyrinth it becomes.

There’s plenty to challenge the soloist in this 1959 work, one of the most difficult in the concert canon for cello. Capuçon articulated every phrase with refreshing directness, whether it was a low growl from the bottom of the instrument’s range or soaring violin-like lines at the very top. Careful attention to dynamics highlighted additional colors.

For his part, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas settled the orchestra’s rhythm into a steady pulse that shifted with subtlety, and maintained a strong dynamic balance without ever overpowering the soloist. The big sound of that cello helped, too.

Once past the bustle of the first movement, the extended arc of the slow one – and the long cadenza leading into a rambunctious finale – unfolded with terrific presence. Tilson Thomas savored the delicate traceries of color involving solo horn (soulfully played by associate principal  Bruce Roberts) and celesta (Robin Sutherland) against the cello playing in high harmonics.

The cadenza invests supple phrases of the slow movement with increasingly complex elaborations and generates momentum for the breakneck finale. Chapuçon showed command of the moment and vividly delivered the leadup to the faster pace of the last movement. The latter gained in ferocity until the abrupt finish.

For the opener, Tilson Thomas dug up an obscure 1926 score by the Soviet composer Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin. Known for fusing Jewish folk music with classical compositional forms, he studied with Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov and taught composition at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1920s and 1930s. The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of Nothingtown is a collection of short dance pieces he wrote as incidental music a production of Gogol’s play The Inspector General. In his opening remarks, Tilson Thomas rendered the title as “The Jewish orchestra at the ball of Nowheresville,” and noted that a young Shostakovich played in the house orchestra.

Its 10 minutes of diverting (if forgettable) music ranged from polkas and Slavonic dances to something like Klezmer and a short segment of pungent harmonies. The orchestra seemed to have a good time playing it, and the audience responded with smiles and warm applause.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony occupied the second half, with extra microphones arrayed about the stage to capture this week’s performances for an upcoming recording. If the rest of the live concerts are as good as this was, it will help document a long and expressive history of this work under this conductor, who has long showed a penchant for 19th- and 20th-century Russian music.

He’s conducted this piece a half-dozen times in subscription concerts and on tour with the orchestra. This performance was notable for pacing that felt absolutely right, brilliant playing by the brass section (led by principal trumpet Mark Inouye), principal horn Robert Ward and timpanist Edward Stephan.

Harvey Steiman

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