Glorious Tchaikovsky in Michael Tilson Thomas’s return to San Francisco Symphony

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Danny Elfman, Tchaikovsky: Gautier Capuçon (cello), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 11.11.2022. (HS)

Gauthier Capuçon plays Danny Elfman’s Cello Concerto © Brittany Hosea-Small

StravinskySymphonies of Wind Instruments
Danny Elfman – Cello Concerto (San Francisco Symphony Commission, U.S. premiere)
TchaikovskySerenade for Strings

The highlight of San Francisco Symphony’s program was to have been the U.S. premiere of Danny Elfman’s Cello Concerto. It was indeed very good, but the memorable moment came with the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Michael Tilson Thomas had not been on the podium here since a brief appearance last spring as he continues treatment for a brain tumor. He drew such a rich and distinctive sound from the strings that it seemed to lift the maestro (and us) into the clouds.

In his 25 years as music director, MTT and this orchestra developed a special synergy, and it showed in a radiant performance of the familiar Tchaikovsky suite. Subtle details, such as gentle diminuendos and hesitations within long melodic phrases and a gentle spring to the rhythmic elements in the second movement waltz, added depth to the sheer beauty of the sound.

And that sound has its own personality. After a run of concerts earlier this fall by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who succeeded Tilson Thomas in 2020, the differences were fascinating to ponder. Salonen seems to favor a brighter, steelier sound against a driving rhythmic sense. This performance showcased a warmer, fleshier texture from the orchestra’s strings (and not just in the Tchaikovsky). It was plush but sleeker than the obviously effulgent sound of top-tier American orchestras in the east and in Europe. MTT’s rhythms had more bounce than drive, but maybe that was simply more appropriate for this music.

Once past the sumptuous colors of the opening phrases, the first movement came to life with a pace just flexible enough to let the music unfurl naturally. The second-movement waltz danced with delicacy and a lovely wink with each shift in perspective. The serene Elégie rose and fell like a sailboat on the open sea on a beautiful day. The finale opened with a wistful reflection before launching into the Russian tune’s livelier rhythms and finished with a haunting diminuendo that gained momentum seamlessly into a crisp finish.

Michael Tilson Thomas embraces the Serenade for Strings score © Brittany Hosea-Small

Out for his second curtain call in front of an outpouring of appreciation from the audience, MTT picked up the score and wrestled it into a demonstrative hug. He obviously has a special feeling for this piece. The wordless communication on stage and in the hall was magnificent to behold.

The Elfman concerto, commissioned by San Francisco Symphony and written for the French cellist Gautier Capuçon, had its premiere postponed by the pandemic. The debut occurred earlier this year with the Vienna Philharmonic, David Robertson conducting, but it was Tilson Thomas who consulted personally with the composer on orchestral matters as the piece took shape.

Still youthful looking at 69, Elfman boasts a long list of movie scores for many of the biggest films of the past three decades (and the theme song for The Simpsons). He attained some notoriety in the pop world in the late 1970s and 1980s as leader of the new wave band, Oingo Boingo. His recent forays into classical music have produced several symphonic works, among them two crowd-pleasing concertos, one for violinist Sandy Cameron and one for percussionist Colin Currie.

To suit Capuçon’s preferences, this 20-minute cello concerto intentionally leans more on melody than rhythm, which was most evident in the slow movement. Titled ‘Meditation’, it sang with long, supple lines against a kaleidoscope of subtly intertwining chords, following a second movement – ‘Molto (almost) perpetuo’ – which had the cellist dig into bursts of zippy, rapid-fire playing.

Melodies wandered uncertainly over occasionally pungent harmonies in both these and the outer movements, but it made for a nicely compact showcase by the cellist, with enough complexity in the orchestral contributions to keep things interesting. Missing, for me, was a well-defined arc of where the (always pleasant) music was coming from and where it was going.

Credit both Capuçon and Tilson Thomas for their unanimity of approach to each element of the piece. It won over the audience, which gave Elfman a roar of appreciation when he bounded onto the stage.

If the strings got their spotlight in the second half of the concert, the winds and percussion got things off to a nice start with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Here again, the ensemble sound had a warmth that brought out sonorities lurking within the composer’s pungent harmonies and delivered them with a soft glove over the punchy rhythms.

Most impressively, the bits of chorale music appeared, reappeared and gained momentum against the shrills of clarinets and punctuations by bells throughout the 10-minute piece until they coalesced into a soulful, comforting, full-scale statement of the chorale in the piece’s final moments.

Harvey Steiman

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