Thursday, February 7, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

(MTT conducted.) At the end of the opening piece, the world premiere of Steven Mackey's Portals, Scenes and Celebrations (But No Oxford Comma), the composer (tall, lanky) bounded down the aisle to take a bow with his shirt untucked.

That kind of summarizes the piece: relaxed, loose-jointed, not humorous but informal. It was lightly orchestrated, but with many things going on, sometimes at once but mostly in quick succession, feeling full of variety but not like a random potpourri box. The tone colors were unusually and strikingly bright. Many passages sounded like subtle evocations of existing styles: pop, jazz, folk, classic Americana, Stravinskian modernism, stereotypical "Oriental" music (as it would have been called then). There was even a passage strikingly recalling the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and but for the lack of whimsicality in the tone I think it would appeal to a PCO audience. Without being at all retrograde or written down to its audience, this is the kind of new music that's appealing, because it isn't pretentious, it isn't ugly, it isn't vapid, and it isn't a waste of the listener's time. Polish modernists and atavistic serialists please take note.

Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 was taken in a similar spirit, especially with the great but completely unpretentious Gil Shaham as soloist. He lightly and casually pranced his way through it, unleashing vivid tone colors that sparkled throughout the work. Then he got Sasha Barantschik to stand up from the concertmaster's seat to share an encore with him, an 18th-century gavotte for two violins. As I said, Shaham is unpretentious; he's happy to share the applause.

The only way to have gotten a Tchaikovsky symphony with a similar spirit would have been to play the First or the Second. Instead, we had the Fourth. It's always the Fourth. The distinction of this performance was the slow sections, from the whole second movement down to little passages in the outers. They were lakes - no, whole other worlds - of calmness and serenity, completely isolated from what surrounded them.

What surrounded them didn't aim at any of the extremes that a performance of the Fourth can go for. It wasn't unusually powerful or grand or exciting or even rushed. It was just a good solid reading of the music.

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