Last night in Davies Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) launched its 107th season with its annual Opening Night Gala concert led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). As usual, the concert featured a major soloist, violinist Itzhak Perlman. However, Perlman’s contributions to the evening involved significant departures from the usual bill of fare.
Most importantly, Perlman used his contribution to the first half of the program to showcase six of the alumni from his Perlman Music Program (PMP). The heart of this program, which Perlman founded in 1994 with his wife Toby, is a seven-week Summer Music School held in Shelter Island, New York. Alumni of the Summer School can also apply for a Chamber Music Workshop directed by Merry Peckham, and they are given a platform for performance through the Stires-Stark Alumni Recital Series.
The six alumni that joined Perlman last night were, in order of appearance, Kristin Lee, Doori Na, Michelle Ross, Eric Silberger, Sean Lee, and Hannah Tarley. Faithful SFS followers may recognize Tarley’s name, since she is also an alumna of the SFS Youth Orchestra. More specifically, she is that ensemble’s youngest Concertmaster, having assumed that position at the age of twelve. In addition she made her debut with SFS in 2005.
These PMP alumni were given a rather unique platform on which to strut their stuff. The major work on the first half of last night’s program was Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1043 concerto for two violins in D minor. With MTT on the podium, Perlman performed one of the two solo parts, while the alumni joined him in alternating to perform the second solo line. The group of six was divided into three pairs; and in each movement one student would play the beginning, turning the solo work over to the second at the halfway mark. Thus, through the above “order of appearance,” one can deduce the players for the each of the three movements, respectively. The transitions amounted to something a bit like passing the baton in a relay race, but all three of them unfolded seamlessly and elegantly. All six players then contributed to the coda of the final movement.
This is the sort of approach to performance that could easily come across as gimmicky, but the result was anything but. Each of the students had her/his own way of approaching the solo line, each of which meshed smoothly with Perlman’s approach to the other line. In many ways the result was a bit like a jazz offering in which each of the players served up her/his own take on the tune, thus honoring both the tune itself and the individuality of each player. Indeed, that balancing of unity and diversity was then given an encore through a group performance of the “Ruthenian Kolomejka” (a dance movement), the 35th of Béla Bartók’s collection of 44 duos for two violins. Over the course of this relatively brief piece, Perlman and his students divided up the two parts in an imaginative series of group and solo combinations, concluding the first half of the program with the same positive energy they had put into the BWV 1043 performance.
Perlman then returned in the second half to give solo performances in arrangements of themes from the soundtracks of four films. The most familiar of these was John Williams’ principal theme for the movie Schindler’s List. This selection has been given increasing attention recently and has elevated to encore status for many soloists and instruments. Arrangements of themes from Cinema Paradiso (Andrea Morricone) and Out of Africa (John Barry) were less familiar and never really registered with much impact. Most interesting was the last of the four offerings, the tango “Por una cabeza” (by a head) by tango master Carlos Gardel. This would have been performed in a club by a band led by Gardel, but Williams prepared an arrangement for violin and orchestra. The music was featured in a tango scene in the movie Scent of a Woman. Last night, however, the polished orchestral arrangement, including the violin solo line, cloaked the earthier rhetoric of the music itself.
This “cinematic suite” was framed by two compositions by George Gershwin. As a result, the second half of the program opened with the “Cuban Overture” (appropriately enough) and concluded with “An American in Paris.” The latter was given a clear and crisp account under MTT’s baton, making a solid case that Gershwin was as capable of composing a narrative tone poem in his own voice as Richard Strauss had been with his.
“Cuban Overture,” on the other hand, never quite found its own coherent voice last night. As colorful as both the instrumentation and the themes were, last night’s performance never really allowed each of those themes to sing with clarity. Thus, there was very little of any Cuban spirit, so to speak; and all of the colors arising from Gershwin’s imaginative instrumentation mushed together into a muddle from which thematic identify barely established itself.
Instrumental identity was much better served by the opening selection of the evening, the orchestral version that Franz Liszt prepared of the first of his four “Mephisto” waltzes, originally composed for piano. Instrumentation was never Liszt’s strong suit, but the efforts behind this piece may be the best of his several attempts. There is an impressive diversity of sonorities, each of which offers its own perspective on the diabolic qualities of the score. (I defy anyone to try to dance a waltz to this music, and I am sure Liszt felt the same way!) Nevertheless, Liszt’s attention to orchestration often bogs down much of the spontaneity that comes from a good account of this music by a pianist sympathetic to Liszt’s style. The one notable exception came from Douglas Rioth’s harp work expositing the back-and-forth unfolding of the tritone interval, known in the Middle Ages as diabolus in musica (the devil in music). On the whole, MTT made the best of Liszt’s efforts, serving up an excellent way to summon audience attention at the beginning of the evening.