Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony bring cool sea breezes and hot Ravel

November 17, 2014 at 12:18 pm

By David Wright

Gil Shaham performs Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Sunday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torre

The Bay Area came to the Bay State Sunday evening at Symphony Hall, as a local favorite, Michael Tilson Thomas, led his San Francisco Symphony in a generous program featuring Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel.

Thomas also treated Bostonians to a Samuel Adams, although this Samuel Adams was not the beer of local fame but the Oakland-based composer, whose colorful piece Drift and Providence offered a subtle mix of acoustic and electronically processed sound.

Thomas, who served as associate conductor and principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra before taking the helm in San Francisco nineteen years ago, was making his first appearance on the Celebrity Series of Boston since he and the SFS played here in 2004.

He brought with him a symphonic instrument that, at its best, made up for what it lacked in heft with transparency and richly blended colors, and a sound as bright and bracing as a chilly San Francisco summer day.

The program opened with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, now most famous as a fiery and witty showpiece for pianists, but which actually originated as a piece for orchestra. In a rare orchestral outing Sunday evening, however, it was the original that sounded like the arrangement.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect an orchestra of 70-or-so players to express the same devilish glee as a Horowitz shaking the music out of his fingers, but one wondered if the San Francisco players might have gotten closer to that if they had known the piece well enough to relax and have fun with it.

As it was, in spite of skillful and accurate playing that actually sounded like a waltz in some places (as few piano performances of this piece do), the piece struck few sparks, and the smell of brimstone did not waft through Symphony Hall.

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 seems to take Mozart as its model, not by using stereotypical 18th-century melodic ideas as in this composer’s “Classical” Symphony, but by its modesty of means and tidiness of phrase.  The prevailing dynamic is soft and softer, and the soloist is often reduced to the role of a sort of super-concertmaster, his lines rising out of the violin section here and there.

The solo part has no showy cadenza, and even the most rapid or gnarly passages are composed on a line and woven into the fabric of the piece, as Mozart would do.

On Sunday night, soloist Gil Shaham was every inch the team player, the Eagle Scout earning his violin merit badge, grinning brightly and making plenty of eye contact, mainly with the orchestra’s associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman.

The orchestra seemed inspired by his elegant and fluent playing, and at times, especially in the Andante assai, the chemistry of orchestra sections with the soloist produced exceptionally tender, floating sonorities.  Other effects, however, such as the gentle two-against-three rhythmic conflict at the start of that same movement, were undermined by prosaic playing in the orchestra.

The outer movements were more consistent in effect.  Shaham gently led the way through an orderly first movement based on a twisting theme that begged for development and a lyrical melody that was gorgeously sufficient in itself.

The closing movement, billed in the late Michael Steinberg’s program note as “a rude awakening” in which “Prokofiev indulges his appetite for dissonance,” came off in Shaham’s poised performance as a peppy folk-dance finale, again à la Mozart, with some spicy modern harmonies.  The difference in perception might have been less about Shaham’s interpretation than about reprinting old program notes written in a more shockable age.

In a different way, Adams’s Drift and Providence, composed in 2011-12 with a commission from Thomas’s two orchestras (the other is the New World Symphony), also promised more shock than it delivered.  (Billed Sunday as Samuel Adams, the composer sometimes goes by Samuel Carl Adams, no doubt to prevent corny jokes by reviewers.)

The title is a near-literal translation of Beethoven’s and Mendelssohn’s (after Goethe) Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, and the piece follows a similar anxiety-to-triumph trajectory as those earlier ones.   Adams described it simply in a program note as “a work about the ocean.”

He went on, however, to describe his aim as not “painting an impressionistic picture like Claude Debussy’s La Mer,” but conveying the idea “that the water whence we came is an object of psychological remove in a highly digitized and distracted life.”

His chosen medium, incorporating both natural and electronically processed orchestral sound, would seem ideally suited for such a project.  So would a wish the composer expressed in an online interview earlier this year, in which he found it “visually uninteresting to watch someone perform on a laptop” and longed instead for “more dynamic forms of interfacing between humans and computers” in performance.

That wish was not realized on Sunday night; while Thomas and the orchestra performed the written part of the score onstage, the composer sat at his station among the downstairs seats, discreetly manipulating his laptop and mixer board.

Indeed, a listener not briefed to expect “digitized and distracted” sensations might have found the piece a charming update of La Mer, complete with wavelets in the violins, deep surges in the double basses, glinting brass highlights and woodwind breezes.

The electronic component, a subtle enhancement of stroking and scraping sounds in the percussion section, sounded on Sunday less like a distracting intrusion on the natural world than a pleasant evocation of it in wind and froth.

Local color in the work included the use of the San Francisco street names Embarcadero and Divisadero as movement titles and an update of Bay Area minimalism in the composition; Samuel Adams’s use of repeated figures and long anchoring notes was considerably more restless and mutable than that of his father, John Adams.

Composer and conductor shared the honors onstage as the audience responded warmly to this well-made and evocative new work.

As Thomas acknowledged in remarks from the podium after the performance, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë Suite No. 2 is virtually the national anthem of Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra having made much of it under generations of conductors from the French school.

Whether for that reason or just because the players knew this piece better, the orchestra and conductor raised their game significantly for the Ravel.  Everything came off with flair and character, from the ephemeral opening ripples in the flutes to the controlled chaos of the final bacchanal.

Flutes, in fact, loomed large in this ballet about the god Pan, particularly the rich tone of principal flutist Tim Day, whose part–tender, vibrant, and malleable by turns—sounded at times like a flute concerto.  All sections seemed to be giving their best, and Thomas expertly mixed the orchestral colors, not just in the dazzling sunrise music, but in the delicate dance numbers that followed.

A well-deserved ovation followed, which the conductor cut off in order to make a few “happy to be here” remarks to the audience.  He then led the orchestra’s strings in an encore, The Last Spring by Grieg—hushed, achingly sweet, and about as sentimental a number as one can play and still call it classical music.

The Celebrity Series of Boston presents the Simón Bolívar String Quartet, 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music.  celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.

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