Trombone concerto world premiere and Appalachian Spring with Tilson Thomas lift spirits in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States Various: Timothy Higgins (trombone), San Francisco Symphony / Ludovic Morlot, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductors). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 19.11.2021. (HS)

Conductor Ludovic Morlot © Lisa Marie Mazzucco

RavelMa mère l’Oye Suite
Timothy Higgins – Trombone Concerto
CoplandAppalachian Spring

In San Francisco Symphony’s superbly produced Keeping Score video series, then-music director Michael Tilson Thomas describes a visit to Aaron Copland. The conductor reminisces about a moment when, as a young man, he visited Copland late in his life, suffering from a long list of physical ailments that made communication difficult. The composer turned to a piano and played the slow-developing arpeggio that creates the seminal chord of his best-known piece, Appalachian Spring. As Tilson Thomas describes it, Copland looked up from the piano and repeated the arpeggio several times, looking at the young musician intently.

Friday night’s performance, the second of three of this program, found Tilson Thomas, now music director laureate, setting up the moment that chord came to life with a bit of extra weight. Tilson Thomas returned to the podium just last week as he recovers from surgery this past summer for a brain tumor, and it was clearly as meaningful for him as it had been for the composer on that long-ago visit.

The whole performance was a reminder of how much this conductor and this orchestra have meant to each other. During his 25-year tenure as music director, which concluded last year, MTT conducted a lot of Copland. For the above-mentioned video, he led a memorable performance of Copland’s original chamber orchestra version of the score. It has been a while since I heard the full orchestra version, tonally richer and expanded to include more of the ballet’s music. This performance avoided any attempt to make grandiose music, instead hewing to the simplicity of the musical language and patiently allowing things to develop organically.

The clarinet line did not linger in the opening measures but moved ahead gracefully. As the arpeggio emerged, its soft dissonances felt utterly natural. After that opening subsided, the rhythms of the next section kicked off crisply. At the end of the piece, after the brass recapitulated the famous ‘Simple Gifts’ tune in brilliant counterpoint, the final sighs from the strings created a moment of tenderness and acceptance.#

Trombonist and composer Timothy Higgins © Corey Weaver

The eloquence of that performance overshadowed the world premiere of Timothy Higgins’ Trombone Concerto. The orchestra’s principal trombone since 2008, Higgins has developed a second career as a composer and arranger. Tilson Thomas handed him the assignment to ready the concerto for fall 2020. The score was ready, but the pandemic postponed the debut until this week. A star player, Higgins can intone the typical orchestral music written for trombone but can also make it sing softly and execute rapid-fire passages as if the instrument’s slide was no hindrance. His concerto exploits that virtuosity but also spreads the musical challenges around an orchestra he knows so well.

The highly listenable tonality and texture are easy on an audience’s ears. At some points Higgins seems to be channeling the audience-friendly sounds of Copland, which made it a fine centerpiece for this concert. At other times I sensed the influence of film music, in particular John Williams’ score for E.T. in the opening movement and the flavors of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock movies in parts of the second. There are no direct quotes, just associations, and welcome ones. The work’s broad format follows that of a traditional classical concerto – an extensive first movement with contrasting themes, a lyrical second movement that slows the pace and a finale that bursts from the gate into a lively rondo.

It jumps into the fray with a trombone solo that feels like a fanfare, softening into a B section of legato playing, and finishes with a virtuoso cadenza that ends with a witty retort from the orchestra. The second movement, ‘Misterioso,’ lays down a cloud of softly dissonant chords that eventually resolve into a bright major triad, against which the trombone’s poetic line communes with contributions from harp and clarinet. The finale takes off at a breathless gallop, with the trombone ranging from the very top to the bottom of its range in demanding, rapid-fire music.

Higgins delivered all this with accuracy and panache. The internal logic of the piece, however, wasn’t clear on first hearing. There is plenty of juicy instrumental wizardry, but if there was a destination for the skillfully wrought scene-painting it eluded me. It sure was fun, though.

Perhaps Tilson Thomas might have brought out those missing elements. After all, he commissioned the concerto, and he was to have conducted it but realized he might have bitten off too much so soon after his surgery. With a full concert to conduct the previous week, including his own work, Notturno, he ceded this assignment to visiting conductor Ludovic Morlot. Formerly music director of the Seattle Symphony and scheduled to take on the Barcelona Symphony next year, Morlot needed to learn this score in short-order for his long-overdue debut in front of the San Francisco Symphony. That he did it at all was impressive enough.

William Grant Still’s Patterns, which would have opened the concert with a nice comparison to the Copland – both composed by mid-century American composers of different cultures – unfortunately had to go. Instead Morlot gave us an elegantly performed Ma mère l’Oye, which painted Ravel’s scenes with a gentle presence.

Harvey Steiman

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