Friday, November 3, 2017

Style Triumphs Brilliantly over Substance

Last night Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the podium in Davies Symphony Hall to lead the San Francisco Symphony in a program consisting of only two compositions, one on either side of the intermission. The older of the two works, Richard Strauss’ Opus 40 tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (a hero’s life), completed in 1898, filled the second half of the evening. The first half provided the second installment in this season’s extended celebration of the birth of Leonard Bernstein on August 25, 1918. The selection was Bernstein’s second symphony, completed in 1948 and named “The Age of Anxiety” after an 80-page poem by W. H. Auden.

Among those who are scholarly (and perhaps among many who have built up considerable listening experience and tend to take their concert-going very seriously), both of these pieces have a tendency to be held at arm’s length. Both of the works are based on elaborate structural plans, but the realization of those plans tends to be confined to surface features. Listeners who have cultivated an appreciation of the deeper-level structures of composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, or even a living composer like Magnus Lindberg tend to be put off by action that takes place only on the surface. They may even find themselves reminded of Gertrude Stein’s dismissal of that city on the other side of our Bay, claiming that “there is no there there.”

Nevertheless, where a piece like “Heldenleben” is concerned, there is more value in considering what is there, rather than what isn’t. If one is willing to set aside the six-episode plan of the tone poem (which may have been omitted from the listing in the program book by design), there is much to be appreciated in Strauss’ command of the full resources of a symphony orchestra. Yes, the “battle scene” makes a mighty noise; and many are likely to be reminded of caricatures of the composer playing umpteen instruments simultaneously. However, when the whole ensemble is not going great guns, there is much to be gained from unpacking how Strauss deploys his resources. This includes the interplay between solo voices and large groups within a section; and, if the conductor has placed his musicians on the stage in a way that reflects careful study of the score, one can even appreciate spatial qualities in how thematic material peregrinates through the full ensemble.

Last night MTT made a solid case that there was more to Opus 40 than mere razzle-dazzle. The very opening gesture, which often sounds as if the low strings are wandering all over the place in search of a theme, launches the composition with what may best be called a “rhetoric of quest.” However, this should not be taken as an excuse for aimlessness; and, when Strauss has a tendency to dwell on one of his ideas too long, MTT knew how to pick up the tempo to keep the narrative moving while, at the same time, teasing out even minor changes in instrumentation or phrasing to keep the listener aware that there was a forward progression. While my personal taste prefers being drawn into the elaborate structural complexities of a Mahler symphony, I could still appreciate how MTT could elicit the many virtues of Strauss’ rhetoric, even when his underlying logic was weak, if not tediously flawed.

Razzle-dazzle is also an operative concept in “The Age of Anxiety.” The work is described as a symphony for piano and orchestra, making it clear that the piece was not intended as a piano concerto. Nevertheless, the piano part is thick with virtuoso demands, many of which are structured around a jazzy rhetoric, given sassy execution by soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Rather than following the usual symphonic organization of movements, Bernstein used the section headings of Auden’s poem as a structural plan (without paying much attention to how each of those sections was distinguished in the poem itself).

The two longest stages of the poem are entitled “The Seven Ages” (based on Jaques monologue about the seven ages of man in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It) and “The Seven Stages,” a journey through a dreamworld organized around the four compass directions. Bernstein turns these into a series of fourteen variations. What makes the variations interesting, however, is the absence of a theme. Each variation serves as a rethinking of a passage that had just been played, turning Auden’s plan into a more elemental logic of free association.

Nevertheless, when the music shines most brightly is when Bernstein has the pianist channel Willie “The Lion” Smith. (Was Bernstein thinking of himself in that capacity?) Thibaudet has established himself as comfortable with just about every genre of piano jazz, so he was right at home in taking on Bernstein’s solo material. MTT clearly shared this appreciation of just how important those “roots” were to this music; and he had no trouble managing the ensemble in the interest of giving Thibaudet free rein.

As a result, even if all of the “action” was on the surface for both Strauss and Bernstein, MTT always seemed to know how to manage his resources in ways that allowed all listeners to enjoy the wealth of surface features afforded by the two compositions on the program. The scornful ones might prefer to describe last night as an evening of dessert courses. However, even a dessert deserves to be prepared with as much care as a “main course;” and last night’s preparations could not have been better.

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