Last night Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) gave the first of three performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) of a program that seemed designed to exercise the full instrumental resources of the ensemble. There were only two works on the program, but they definitely made for an intense and exhilarating workout. The first half was devoted to Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto with Jeremy Denk as soloist. The second half presented Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14, whose full title is “Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste … en cinq parties” (fantastical symphony: an episode in the life of an artist, in five parts).
Opus 14 could distinguish itself strictly as program music based on the grotesqueries of a thoroughly lurid narrative of an artist who is not only consumed by his obsession but is also dragged down to Hell by it. The fact that Berlioz could cast this narrative in the structure of a five-movement symphony only reinforces its assets. However, that would overlook the 90 instruments required to play the music (dutifully enumerated on the Wikipedia page for this composition). Furthermore, it is clear that Berlioz never favored any single line of the score over the others. This is music in which every member of the ensemble appreciates the significance of his/her contribution to the whole.
By the time the performance had concluded, one could read that appreciation on just about every face on stage. All four percussionists were smiling ear-to-ear. Their role in the final movement was critical to both the narrative plot and the musical rhetoric, meaning that they had a real workout on their hands. However, after the dust was blown away by the final fermata-held chord, they were not shy about letting us know how much fun it all was.
Indeed, last night there was a clear sense that MTT had put just as much intense concentration into performing this score as Berlioz had put into making it. Furthermore, that concentration was evident before even the first minute had elapsed. There is a fermata over a sixteenth-note rest in the fourth measure. Conductors tend to approach it as if it was there to allow a diva to take a breath before singing her next phrase. MTT held that rest as if it felt like it would last forever, the first hint at the warped mind of the narrative’s artist-protagonist.
So it was throughout the performance of the entire symphony. No matter how familiar the attentive listener may have been with this music, MTT kept serving up ways to turn the attention in directions that had probably not previously been considered. In so doing he succeeded in prioritizing the music itself over all the “special effects” summoned to depict the narrative.
About a quarter-century after the composition had been completed, Berlioz wrote a preface for the score, which included the following sentence:
The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.
Both MTT and the SFS musicians performed in such a way as to honor that hope, and the results could not have been more satisfying.
In a similar way Bartók’s second piano concerto requires a meticulous balance between spectacle and discipline. In this case, however, the results were more mixed. Denk’s command of the solo work was unfailingly impressive. This was not just a matter of the hell-bent-for-leather intensity of his approach to the outer movements. He was equally attentive to the darker shades of the middle movement, a ternary-form Adagio with a middle section that amounts to a demonic Presto.
Denk also knew how to convey the overall arch structure of the concerto. The final movement thus emerges clearly as reflecting back on the thematic material of the opening movement. However, while the themes in the first movement were in a duple metre, they return in the third movement in triplet phrases. In other words there is a clockwork precision to Bartók’s structuring of this score; and, even when Denk was racing through the most rapid passages, there was always a sense that Bartók’s clock was ticking along in an orderly and disciplined manner.
Beyond the piano, however, this concerto takes a highly imaginative approach to instrumentation. The strings never play in the first movement. The second movement, on the other hand, consists entirely of only strings and timpani. Furthermore, the strings are muted and play without vibrato. It is thus only in the final movement that Bartók assembles his full ensemble.
Unfortunately, the first movement got off to a rocky start. The trombones and, to some extent, the trumpets went over the top far too soon; and their energy level tended to overwhelm pretty much all of the winds, sometimes even including the horns. It almost felt as if MTT was so wrapped up in the ebullience of the music that he forgot about keeping his resources properly balanced. (There were never any problems of balance in his Berlioz performance.) Fortunately, Denk’s dynamics could hold their own even when the orchestra was at its most rambunctious; but there was a clear sense that his effort was a Herculean one.
The good news was that Denk appreciated that all of this storm deserved to be followed by some calm. Following the concerto, he came out to take a solo encore. He chose the second (Andante) movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 545 sonata in C major. (This is the one whose first movement has one of Mozart’s best-known themes, usually played to death by just about every piano student around the world.) This is one of Mozart’s longer Andante movements; and, while the sonata itself may be as familiar as an old warm sweater, there are no end of eyebrow-raising twists and turns in the marks that Mozart committed to paper. Denk clearly appreciated that this movement was a journey unto itself; and it allowed him to “clear the air” in the wake of the intensity of Bartók’s rhetoric in a setting of both Classical discipline and contemporary expressiveness.