Last night in Davies Symphony Hall violinist Nicola Benedetti gave the first of two performances of Max Bruch’s Opus 26 (first) violin concerto in G minor with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). Benedetti made her SFS debut on December 31, 2011 as part of the festivities of the New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball, so it has been quite a wait for the chance to listen to her in a more conducive concert setting. Fortunately, that patience was well rewarded.
Opus 26 definitely counts as a warhorse in the serious violinist’s repertoire, and it tends to count just as much as an audience favorite. It has a generous supply of accessible and memorable themes, interleaved with an equally generous supply of virtuoso technical display. With thoroughly conventional instrumentation, it also boasts of some truly soaring orchestral support, particularly in the lyricism of the Adagio (second) movement. In other words this was music that allowed both Benedetti and MTT to show off their best moves, and the chemistry between the two of them could not have been better.
However, when it comes to surface features, there is more to Opus 26 than appealing tunes and technical legerdemain. From the very beginning of this concerto, the listener is aware that Bruch attached great rhetorical significance to the long sustained tone; and that device recurs in a variety of settings throughout the entire concerto. Establishing audience attention by beginning with one of those tones is no easy matter. The fact that Benedetti had a solid logic for endowing that tone’s full duration with expressiveness won the attention of the serious listener firmly on the basis of first impressions. From then on it was just a matter maintaining attention throughout the rest of the journey, and this was where the joint effort of Benedetti and MTT proved to be particularly rewarding.
After such an intensely absorbing experience, it was not that all surprising that Benedetti’s encore be a bit of a let-down. It was certainly an unconventional selection, an excerpt from the cadenza for Wynton Marsalis’ violin concerto, which he wrote for Benedetti. To be fair, cadenzas “untimely ripped” from their context rarely lend themselves to sensemaking on the part of the serious listener, particularly if that context is unfamiliar or, as was probably the case for most of the audience, entirely unknown. Listening to the music’s few tropes that seemed a bit uncertain about how jazzy the rhetorical stance should be, I recalled the Sixty Minutes profile of Marsalis, during which Raymond Leppard observed that, as Marsalis matured, he would have to decide to commit himself fully to either classical or jazz practices, rather than try to alternate between the two. Without a context to establish it, the excerpt Benedetti played did not seem to commit itself to either side, leading this listener (at least) to wish that she had chosen something a bit more consistent with Bruch, however decadent that might have been.
Returning to Davies last night also provided an opportunity to view the full five-screen video projection, created as “accompaniment” for the SFS performance of John Cage’s “The Seasons,” which was not presented this past Thursday due to technical difficulties. On that occasion only the middle of the five side-by-side screens displayed the video conceived by Clyde Scott. Even it that limited scope, Scott’s images did much to facilitate awareness of Cage’s interpretation of the (Asian) Indian connotations of the seasons, winter as quiescence, spring as creation, summer as preservation, and fall as destruction. With the images on all five screens, the viewer could better appreciate the “linguistic elements” of Scott’s language through his ability to move them from one screen to another, thus endowing them with both foreground and background roles. Also the rhetorical impact of the more aggressive contacts, such as destruction, made a deeper impression, reinforcing the boldest sonorities of Cage’s instrumental language.
Nevertheless, Cage’s use of preludes for each of the seasons suggested that he was as interested in the transitions between the seasons as he was in the seasons themselves. To some extent the lighting design by Luke Kritzeck seemed to have been conceived with such transitions in mind. However, the result was not entirely convincing, leaving the impression of suggesting what Cage had wanted to achieve through his music without actually capturing the effect itself.
As was the case on Thursday, the program again concluded with Béla Bartók’s 1943 “Concerto for Orchestra.” Once again MTT was in firm command of the full scope of SFS resources, and one could enjoy the full scope of imaginative devices that Bartók had doled out to all of the instruments. Furthermore, on this occasion it seemed as if MTT decided that the ultimate climax of the piece took place when the fugue subject in the Finale is given its final statement as a “chorale theme” from the brass while the rest of the ensemble is busily playing out “chorale prelude” embellishments. After that final establishment of the theme, the full ensemble rushes headlong into the coda, which culminates in the mother of all perfect cadences. In other words, while the piece ends with a bang, that bang is not the “highest peak” but simply a very well punctuated afterthought.
For this listener, at least, MTT’s decision was a good one. The fugue is central to the finale, since it does not begin until roughly halfway through the movement. However, it is the culminating device that surveys the full breadth of orchestral sonorities. It makes perfect sense that the climax of that fugue should also be the climax of the entire composition, and MTT made a solid case for that point of view.