Friday, September 14, 2018

MTT Overloads this Week’s SFS Program

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the program for the first subscription concerts of the new 107th season. As Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) observed at the beginning of the evening, this program was conceived to complement the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit, which also opened yesterday. He specifically cited the COAL + ICE Project, a documentary photography exhibition, currently on display at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. Video designer Clyde Scott selected images from this exhibition that were projected at the beginning of the evening as Abigail Washburn sang two songs associated with coal mining communities in Depression-era Appalachia, “Come All You Coal Miners” and “And Am I Born to Die.” Washburn’s solo account of the first of these set the dark tone for the problems being confronted at the Summit; but, sadly, that tone was undermined by the syrupy accompaniment that SFS provided for her second selection.

Scott’s designs, along with lighting provided by Luke Kritzeck, continued to be deployed throughout the evening with variable results. The impact was greatest at the very beginning of the evening, once SFS has dispensed with its accompaniment duties. MTT opened the main program with the first SFS performance of Inverno in-ver, a series of eleven musical poems depicting winter (which, in Italian, translates as inverno) scenes by the Italian composer Niccolò Castiglioni, a composition that MTT had previously performed with the New World Symphony. He introduced this music by comparing it to the miniaturism of Anton Webern but stressed that Castiglioni’s short movements were unabashedly tonal.

What made the deepest impression was the breadth of Castiglioni’s capacity for invention. Scott’s projections introduced each piece by providing its title in both Italian and English translation, and the attentive listener was quickly aware of how every movement had its own unique approach to thematic material and rhetorical delivery. The only unifying factor was a preference for extremely high registers (which made any appearance by low strings rare and striking when it occurred). Both Scott and Kritzeck clearly grasped the diversity of Castiglioni’s differentiations and complemented the music with an ongoing flow of highly imaginative visual impressions. Admittedly, this was a technology-heavy performance; but it was one of those rare occasions in which the technology reflected on the music, rather than distracting from it.

Inverno in-ver served well as the “overture” for the “concerto portion” of the program, Maurice Ravel’s D major piano concerto written to be played only by the left hand. When it came to matters of deploying an abundantly rich diversity of sonorities in the service of a single composition, Ravel was one of the twentieth century’s leading masters of the craft. His skill was evident from the very opening in which an almost sinister contrabassoon solo emerges from the murky churning textures of the low strings. Given all of that exposure to the highest registers in Inverno in-ver, this concerto could not have provided a better balance for the first half of the program.

Pianist Yuja Wang (photograph by Norbert Kniak, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon)

The concerto soloist last night was Yuja Wang, whose left-hand dexterity (whose who know their Latin will recognize the oxymoron) rose impressively to every challenge that Ravel posed. This is music in which a single hand must account for establishing both theme and accompaniment, and Wang never faltered when it came to distinguishing which was which. As her salvos of virtuosity emerged from the keyboard, SFS was always there with the full spectrum of sonorities that Ravel had conceived to offset the piano work. This concerto tends to receive less attention than Ravel’s other piano concerto in G major, and the combined forces of Wang and MTT could not have made a better effort to right that balance.

Nevertheless, whenever I approach either of Ravel’s concertos as a listener, I always find myself thinking of the friendship he established with George Gershwin. Michael Steinberg’s notes for the program book overlooked the fact that Ravel began work on both of his concertos in the same year, 1929, developing the two scores concurrently. There is every reason to believe that, by 1929, Ravel was aware of Gershwin’s two major concertante compositions for piano and orchestra, “Rhapsody in Blue,” composed in 1924, and “Concerto in F” (the title deliberately avoiding commitment to either major or minor), written the following year. I can never avoid thinking that Ravel’s concertos constituted his own way of “responding to the call” of these two Gershwin compositions. Gershwin’s three-movement “Concerto in F” was complemented by the G major concerto, also in three movements, while the single-movement structure of the left-hand concerto is almost more of a “rhapsody” than a concerto.

These thoughts were enhanced by the visual experience of last night’s performance. Wang wore a blue gown that was stunningly electric, while Kritzeck lit the stage with just the right shade of blue to complement her outfit. Was Wang trying to remind us that Ravel knew about “Rhapsody in Blue” when he was working on his left-hand concerto? If so, then I admire her for her insight. If not, I can still enjoy my own idle speculations!

As always, Wang treated her audience to an encore before the intermission break. Her selection was the second of the six pieces in Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 67, the sixth of the eight books he composed with the title Songs Without Words. This entailed an abrupt shift from G major to F-sharp minor; but the “main attraction” was Wang’s lightness of touch (the tempo marking is Allegro leggiero), through which she even served up a gracious reminder of one of the tropes the composer favored in his chamber music.

All of this meant that, before the intermission had even begun, those of us on audience side had enjoyed a rich abundance of imaginative music-making. Perhaps it was inevitable that the second half of the evening would be a bit of a let-down. MTT decided that, in keeping with the “environmental” theme of the Global Climate Action Summit, Aaron Copland’s score for Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring” would be appropriate. He also decided that, rather than serving up the usual reduced suite for full orchestra that Copland prepared in 1945, the year after the dance was first performed (accompanied by a thirteen-member chamber ensemble), he would play the full-orchestra version of the complete score. Copland began this effort at the request of Eugene Ormandy and had restored the longest of the cuts, the Preacher’s fire-and-brimstone sermon, in 1954. However, he abandoned further work on the project; and it was only completed in 2014 by David Newman. (This is probably the “Complete Ballet” version that Leonard Slatkin recorded with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for a Naxos recording released in 2016.)

Giving a more through account of the score is something that tends to go down well with fans of Graham’s choreography. (Full disclaimer: I am one of them.) However, for those unfamiliar with Graham’s narrative (and the booklet notes by James M. Keller were inadequately sketchy in this matter), the “full score” can quickly feel like somewhat of a slog. While Graham brought refreshing uniqueness to each of her fourteen episodes, Copland’s score was not quite as imaginative, particularly when it came to the transitions between those episodes, all of which seem to have been spooned out of the same can. The result was that MTT’s interest in providing a more thorough account came of as a rather tiring slog, reinforced by the fact that the final applause did not begin until 10:30 p.m.!

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