After a Big Announcement, Tilson Thomas Shows Why He’ll Be Missed

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, R. Strauss: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 2.11.2017. (HS)

BernsteinThe Age of Anxiety, Symphony No.2

R. StraussEin Heldenleben

At the first rehearsal for this subscription concert, Michael Tilson Thomas announced to the San Francisco Symphony’s musicians that he would be stepping down as its music director after the 2019-2020 season. They didn’t miss a beat. If anything, the orchestra exceeded its usual level of crisp and evocative music-making as Tilson Thomas shaped big works by Leonard Bernstein and Richard Strauss into compelling narratives.

At first glance one might ask why these two works belong on the same program. In a rare pre-concert talk (usually given by local academics or program annotators) Tilson Thomas explored that question but never mentioned the big news of the week. He did point out that both composers put their outsized egos on display – Strauss in 1898 by channeling the failure of his first go at opera (Guntram) into a summation of his previous successes, and a youthful Bernstein in 1948 wrestling with the broad philosophical questions outlined by the poet W.H. Auden in his epic Age of Anxiety.

Both emerged from men in their thirties showing off their musical chops. As restless as these pieces are, somehow both composers sound very much like themselves. Strauss, the veteran of a string of vivid tone poems and lieder, fashioned more coherence than Bernstein’s spiky, loosely organized ramblings. Where Strauss quotes his own music, Bernstein alludes to the competing styles of his age, from Prokofiev to Copland to jazz-inflected Broadway. One section uses a 12-tone row.

Thursday evening in Davies Symphony Hall in an impressively committed performance of Bernstein’s 35-minute two-part symphony, one could clearly sense the seeds of the more popular later works, including West Side Story, Chichester Psalms and Mass. From the opening murmur of two clarinets to the big climaxes, the musicians and piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet lapped up the twists and turns in Bernstein’s eclectic writing. The 14 variations that conclude Part I unfolded like a turning kaleidoscope, as Thibaudet deftly injected piano commentary.

Bernstein hides the dissonances in the tone row he employed for the ‘dirge’ that opens Part II. The orchestra caressed the textures to make it into a thing of beauty, before Thibaudet raced headlong into the ‘masque’ section, a hot-jazz-fest that showed off a comfort level with the idiom that paid dividends in swing. The epilogue resolved into moments of ravishing transcendence.

In Ein Heldenleben, Tilson Thomas clearly relished bringing out the bits of Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel and the song ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’, ending with a gorgeous paraphrase of the Also sprach Zarathustra fanfare. Even more impressive was how well the conductor tied together what can easily devolve into a mishmash, making it a coherent narrative.

The opening carried a bit more pungency and swagger than the stentorian effect that often appears, and the chittering, snapping interlude (meant to portray naysayers who quibbled pedantically over Strauss’ music) came off as appropriately snarky. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik then spun out the gorgeous opening phrases of the long violin solo, harnessing the melody’s increasing ornamentation and emphasizing its charm.

The back-and-forth between Strauss’ recap of all his successes and the grumbling of the naysayers, interwoven with the violin melody, layered themselves seamlessly until the final sonorities came to rest. Solos and other individual contributions coalesced into a real sense of unanimity, all the way to the peaceful finish.

Harvey Steiman

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