This week in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), is presenting the second of the three programs previewing the selections that will be performed when SFS makes its tour of Asia in November. Pianist Yuja Wang will be joining SFS on this tour, and last night she gave the first performance of the first of the two concertos she will be playing. This was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 35 (first) concerto in C minor. The score actually describes this as a concerto “for piano, trumpet, and string orchestra;” and the second solo part was taken by SFS Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye.
This concerto was completed in 1933 at a time when Shostakovich saw no risk in exercising his wit to the fullest. Even the poignancy of his Lento movement cannot hide its undercurrent of irony. Indeed, the trumpet almost takes the role of a circus clown, the prototypical sources of humor emerging from sadness. The trumpet’s voice alternates between brash interjections and well-worn clichés; and last night they were all delivered by Inouye with the best possible deadpan expression. The piano, on the other hand, is more like a stand-up comedian, firing off comic salvos and almost defying the listener to keep up the pace. Yuja executed her part with all the tightly-knit precision that makes this kind of comedy so successful; and her physical composure was always focused entirely on what was happening at the keyboard. Not only did her fingers fire away with the precision of an elaborately complex system of mechanical linkages; but also all that precision climaxed in the full-elbow tone cluster in the final movement.
As was the case when she performed this concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra in March of 2015 (again with MTT conducting), Wang capped the madcap spirit of Shostakovich’s concerto with her thoroughly off-the-wall paraphrase of the final movement (“Turkish Rondo”) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K, 331 A major piano sonata. She first played this at an SFS concert in May of 2009, at which time it seemed as if she had used an arrangement by Arcadi Volodos as a point of departure. However, each time she plays it, there seems to be less of Volodos (and therefore less of Mozart) and more even wilder sources. Last night gave the impression that she had been discovering Fats Waller at his most over-the-top with a generous number of intrusions from Rowlf the Dog.
If SFS resources were somewhat modest for this portion of the program, they had already pulled out everything for the opening selection, composed by Bright Sheng and entitled “Dream of the Red Chamber Overture.” This piece was commissioned by SFS and was given its world premiere last night. Sheng has made it clear that this is not the “overture” for the performances of Dream of the Red Chamber currently being performed by the San Francisco Opera. Rather, this is a stand-alone concert overture that draws upon thematic material from the full opera.
As has already been observed, the score for the opera itself has some of the thickest textures of counterpoint that one is likely to encounter in any setting; and, when things get that thick, the mind behind the ear has to take on the management of a plethora of dissonant ambiguities. That puts quite a demand on the listener when most of the voices of that counterpoint have been confined to an orchestra pit in an opera house. It should therefore be no surprise that the Davies stage provided a far more accommodating acoustic setting. Indeed, not only did the sounds themselves have a clearer path to the ear but also the eye had greater capacity to scan the different sections of the ensemble, thereby identifying specific lines in the counterpoint on the basis of the movements of the players.
Nevertheless, the full opera puts quite a demand on even the most attentive observer. Having seen the opera performed only about ten days ago, I have to confess that I was curious as to how much of the “Overture” music would be recognized. The honest answer in my case was about 50%. Given the vast scope of the opera, that level of recollection left me pleasantly surprised. Mind you, the audiences in Asia will not have to worry about this matter, since the opera will not be performed anywhere in Asia until next spring at the Hong Kong Arts Festival; and Hong Kong will not be one of the stops on the SFS tour!
During my first contact with the full opera, mind often tried to link listening in the present to past listening experiences. As a result my account of that performance suggested that there might be some connection to Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale. Last night the intermission was followed by “Le chant du rossignol” (the song of the nightingale), Stravinsky’s symphonic reflection on themes from that opera, possibly in the same spirit behind Sheng’s “Overture.” Neither piece tries to “tell the story” in an abbreviated instrumental form. Indeed, the thematic material of Stravinsky’s opera gets pretty thoroughly shuffled in “Le chant du rossignol.” Nevertheless, the contrast between the nightingale (Principal Flute Tim Day) and her mechanical imitation (Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov) was a clear as it was in the opera, even if the rest of the narrative had been sliced and diced almost beyond recognition.
The evening concluded with the 1919 suite that Stravinsky extracted from the full score he had composed for the one-act ballet “The Firebird.” The movements of the suite follow the order in which the music is played in the ballet; but, again, there is little sense of the underlying narrative. On the other hand there is no shortage of rich instrumental coloration, all of which could not have been better managed by MTT leading the far-more-than-capable SFS resources. Stravinsky occupied the entirety of the second half of the evening, and he could not have been better served.