Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in the last of three programs prepared to preview the selections that will be performed when SFS makes its tour of Asia, which gets under way next week. The usual overture-concerto-symphony plan was followed; and the concerto soloist was pianist Yuja Wang, who will be joining SFS on the tour. However, the concert in its entirety served as an impressive departure from business-as-usual, even to the point of running twenty minutes into overtime. On the downside this led to the inevitable trickle of early exits, many of which were visible to those of us who preferred to keep our seats. Remaining was definitely worth it for the program’s departures from the ordinary; and it is unfortunate that it will be given only two more performances, tonight and tomorrow night.
The concerto selection was Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 21 in F minor. Completed in 1830, this is actually the earlier of the two piano concertos that Chopin composed, although, as a result of publishing order, it was numbered as his second. It tends to be the less performed of the two, probably because most pianists who commit themselves to playing Chopin prefer the bombastic exhibitionism of Opus 11 in E minor. Opus 21 is the more cerebral of the two, and both Wang and MTT were clearly committed to giving it all the attention it deserved. This began with the extended orchestral introduction, for which MTT cut back the size of the string section to a far more intimate level than one encounters in most performances of Opus 11.
Opus 21 is very much a concerto for piano and orchestra, rather than piano accompanied by orchestra. This is music of partnership in which the soloist has abundant opportunities to engage with a wide diversity of instrumental lines that take in not only the strings but also solo lines for winds and brass (not to mention the distinctive coloration provided by the bass trombone). In the interest of such partnership, Wang took an intimate rhetorical stance in her solo work, allowing us all to appreciate the more delicate side of character that she can summon. This was a performance that reminded us the extent to which Chopin appreciated that making music was far more than the posturing and preening of virtuosity. That view of Chopin then spilled over into Wang’s solo encore, the second (in C-sharp minor) of his three Opus 64 waltzes, delivered with a subdued elegance that kept attention riveted from beginning to end.
The symphony selection provided about as sharp a contrast as one could expect. It was Anton Bruckner’s seventh, begun in September 1881, completed almost exactly two years later in 1883 and revised in 1885. The salient historical context for this piece is that Richard Wagner died in February of 1883, while Bruckner was working on this symphony. That occasion is marked in the score not only by the inclusion of four Wagner tubas in the brass section but also by the punctuation of the climax of the second (Adagio) movement with the only non-timpani percussion, a single cymbal clash extended by a triangle trill. This moment is marked in the score by rehearsal letter W! As was the case at his last performances of this symphony in February and March of 2013, MTT used the edition prepared by Robert Haas (which was based primarily on the 1883 autograph) but restored the cymbal and triangle parts that Haas had chosen to omit.
MTT’s Bruckner performances just keep getting better. He clearly relishes the broad expansiveness of tone that Buckner summons. While Bruckner’s technique is never short on profound rhetoric, his approach to logical structure tends to be confounding; but it only confounds those who believe that all symphonies must be grounded in classical forms, no matter how extensively they may be subsequently elaborated. Bruckner’s logic, on the other hand, is not, for the most part, concerned with overarching structures. Instead, his is one of meandering paths defined by episodes, many of which simply come to closure rather than connect to predecessors and successors through transitional passages. It is almost as if his mind takes him from one thought to another; and he responds by accounting for each thought in its own self-contained package.
Many find this technique unsettling and/or tedious. MTT, on the other hand, has cultivated a sufficiently intimate acquaintance with the score that he can follow this approach as if it were the most natural way in the world to make music. (Reach back far enough in history and it probably was. Think about the bardic practices that provide the roots for singing as we now know it.) However, as is also the case with his approach to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, MTT knows how to prioritize his moments. This is most evident in that Adagio movement, during which the listener gets caught up in both the gradual ascent to that moment at rehearsal letter W and the “enlightened withdrawal” that ensues after than climax has been established. The Asian audiences attending SFS concerts with this symphony on the program will be in for a real treat.
The “overture” was a recent revision of MTT’s “Agnegram,” which he first composed in 1998 to honor SFS Board member Agnes Albert. One can deep-end on how MTT took the letters of Albert’s name as pitch classes. More important however is that, as MTT described it to the audience, the music is a march-scherzo. The dual nature is necessary, because much of the fun of this piece resides in the many instances of eccentric rhythms that obstinately refused to “keep in step.” The score is also generously sprinkled with quotations, many of which are overtly outrageous. Given the depth of the concerto and symphony, this was a program that chose to lead off with its comic relief and did so to the best possible effect.