Vital Shostakovich and Prokofiev from Gauthier Capuçon and Michael Tilson Thomas

United StatesUnited States Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Gauthier Capuçon (cello), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 20.1.2022. (HS)

Gauthier Capuçon (c) Anoush Abrar

Shostakovich – Cello Concerto No.2 in G major, Op.126

Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in B-flat major, Op.100

There is something defiant about Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5 and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.2. They forge ahead with an inexorable intent that somehow seems a perfect metaphor for making exceptional music in the midst of a COVID-19 surge. As careful as San Francisco has been about the virus, this city has seen an unprecedented spike in cases, as have most places in the Americas and Europe. The city’s symphony orchestra had to cancel a concert last week when several members of the orchestra tested positive.

For Thursday’s event, ushers handed out KN95 face masks to those who did not already have them as new protocols went into effect requiring masks as well as evidence of vaccine boosters. If anything, this seemed to energize music director laureate Michael Tilson Thomas and the cello soloist Gauthier Capuçon, who set the concerto off with a performance of vivid specificity and just the right amount of bravado.

Tilson Thomas helped draw the two-thirds-full audience into the concerto, written in 1966 for Mstislav Rostropovich, by introducing the piece in greater detail than usual. He walked us through a sort of road map of the piece – describing the unaccompanied cello tune that begins the piece as something an old street musician might play, sketching its development, characterizing the Scherzo’s bouncy tune as that of a bagel vender and noting how all the elements get a reprise before the finish tapers off wistfully.

Finally, dropping his head, he said, ‘And it’s really hard’, before adding that Capuçon had made friends with the orchestra in rehearsals. This triggered a stomping acknowledgement from the musicians.

The performance lived up to this introduction. Capuçon eased into the piece with simplicity and soul. The orchestra matched the soloist in pace and style as Shostakovich’s quirky tunes and sudden turns of mood popped with poise and flair. Capuçon’s tone cut through the orchestra’s sound with precision and without strain. As the music became more complex, he executed everything flawlessly, restating tunes and fanfares from the orchestra with a welcome sense of improvisation.

This concerto is not about a soloist showing off but reflects a conversation between the cello and orchestra. Sometimes they clash, more often they enhance each other and, with these artists, it all emerged with a little something extra. Maybe it was simply the joy of making music on this scale during a pandemic.

That carried over into Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, the composer’s most-performed. It is a piece this conductor has led many times, so it was interesting that the first movement seemed to have unusual density and luxuriousness. A champion of Russian music, Tilson Thomas altered his approach a bit. In the past he has emphasized forward movement with a leaner texture, but this time the strings went for bottom-heavy plushness in the opening movement (Andante), yet still with enough momentum to keep it plugging away.

That choice paid off as the textures lightened and brightened with each successive movement. The scherzo (Allegro marcato) had more zip to it, as woodwinds and brass brought out a kaleidoscope of colors and strings delivered a sassier tone. The lyrical slow movement was a study in elegance.

The finale, which starts with a slow reprise of the opening tune, including a delicious five-part chorale-like statement by the cellos, opened up into a lively rondo. The strings bounced an accompaniment for the clarinet melody (played by principal Carey Bell, who distinguished himself repeatedly in all his solos), and we were off. The sunlight contrasted satisfyingly with the darkness of the opening movement, and the momentum was irresistible right through the flashy finish.

In his second run of concerts since undergoing brain surgery, which kept him out of the public eye for several months last year, Tilson Thomas showed no apparent effect in his pre-concert speech. If he walked on stage a bit more slowly than before and seemed less physically active wielding the baton, his command of tempo, rhythm and shadings was as sharp as ever.

Harvey Steiman

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