Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), presented the first North American performance of Robin Holloway’s Opus 121, “Europa & the Bull.” This was a result of a co-commission between SFS and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society, which gave the world premiere on October 8, 2015, conducted by Andrew Manze. While it is not immediately apparent from the title, the work is basically a concerto for tuba and orchestra; and last night’s soloist was SFS Principal Tuba Jeffrey Anderson.
The title refers to the myth that concerns one of Jupiter’s many dalliances with beautiful young nymphs. He has his way with Europa after turning himself into a bull and the carrying her off to a secluded place to consummate his lust. The concerto is actually more of a tone poem, organized around seven seamlessly connected episodes. In many respects the tuba is a “natural” for the “male lead” of this tale, capturing the dominating massiveness of both Jupiter as the king above the other Olympic gods and the image of his transformation into a hyper-charged (not to mention rapacious) bull. Nevertheless, the tale of the seduction of Europa concludes with a birth that symbolically represents the origins of the European continent.
Thus, while there is no shortage of aggressive scoring for both soloist and orchestra, there is also no shortage of highly lyrical qualities. Igor Stravinsky supposedly once made a throw-away remark to the effect that even raw lust can result in a fruitful offspring; and the scenario behind Holloway’s score almost seems to be more interested in celebrating the “creation” of Europe than in providing a blow-by-blow (so to speak) account of the aggressive violence that led to that creation. From that point of view, Anderson was thoroughly engaging through the lyrical qualities he could bring to his performance.. Yes, he had to master some imposing technical challenges, particularly in the section marked “Quasi una Cadenza” (almost a cadenza); but it was his consummate skill in capturing the sweetness of many of the melodic lines that made his solo work so impressive.
(Holloway was not the first to explore this lyric side of the tuba; Ralph Vaughan Williams F minor concerto for the instrument, which he composed in 1954, achieved the same goal in a more conventional, and abstract, three-movement structure.)
Those lyrical qualities were anticipated by MTT opening the program with the score that John Cage wrote for Merce Cunningham’s ballet “The Seasons.” MTT had introduced this piece to current SFS audiences 2015. (Charles Wuorinen had conducted the first SFS performances in 1986.) This piece will probably continue to surprise those who associate Cage only with silence and noise. Like many of his earliest piano compositions, this score has a delicacy structured primarily around an uneven rhythmic structure in which sonorities reveal themselves through an exquisite sensitivity to instrumentation.
Last night the music for “The Seasons” was to be augmented with both lighting effects and video projected on five screens arrayed side-by-side in front of the Terrace area. Unfortunately, one of the power supplies died and could not be replaced on short notice, so the projections were confined to the center screen. This did not seem particularly detrimental.
From a philosophical point of view, the music is more “about” the smooth transitions between the seasons than it is about the seasons themselves. By including the text markers that identify the different movements, the projection brought clarity to how the music itself migrated through the course of a year, concluding with a repetition of the prelude to the quiescent Winter section with which it began. That sense of smooth transition was reinforced by the changes in the lighting sources, some of which were almost too subtle to be noticed while others were strikingly abrupt. The result was an account of Cage’s score that enhanced awareness of the underlying philosophy without detracting from the music itself.
The intermission was followed by Béla Bartók’s 1943 composition, which he entitled “Concerto for Orchestra.” As was the case during the first half of the evening, this was music that explored diverse sonorities; but Bartók’s approach to overall structure was far more conventional. Indeed, he wanted it to be conventional. He knew he was dying when he wrote the piece, and he hoped that music with greater audience appeal might lead to a revenue stream of royalties for his widow.
True to its title, this is music that explores a wide and diverse range of sonorities afforded by the many different instruments in a full orchestra. For the most part Bartók summons up those sonorities through combinations, rather than extended solo passages. Those combinations can just as easily involve sharp contrasts as blends of similar timbres across different registers. All those different sonorities play out through relatively conventional structural designs, culminating it a wild and wooly Presto Finale in which the whole ensemble erupts like one massive volcano of sonic energy. Almost as if to thumb his nose at more “progressive” elements, Bartók concludes his concerto with a triumphant perfect cadence that would have been just as comfortable in the late nineteenth century.
Nevertheless, this score was conceived as music to make you feel good about listening to music. MTT clearly felt good about presenting it to last night’s audience. After that final cadence if felt as if all of Davies vigorously responded in kind.