Saturday, November 13, 2021

two more concerts

This week successive concerts on successive nights gave me the chance to hear both of the fabulous McGill brothers, clarinetist Anthony - whom I've heard several times before - in chamber music on Thursday, and flutist Demarre - who's principal of the Seattle Symphony, but whom I had not otherwise heard - in a concerto on Friday.

Thursday was the second installment of the Catalyst Quartet's four-concert survey of music by Black composers, to which I subscribed. With Anthony McGill they played the Clarinet Quintet of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1895), a work in a drier and more incisive style than one might expect for that period, notable mostly for its striking rhythmic profile rather than melodic charm, though it is lyrical and pleasant.

The quartet alone played the String Quartet No. 1 (1956) by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who yes was named for his predecessor and was, we learned, known to his friends as "Perk" or "Perkie." In complete defiance of the academic expectation of his time, this was a thoroughly consonant work with a little grit, reminding me in style - and not just because it included one of the same folk hymns - quite a lot of the remaining piece on the program, Florence Price's "Five Folksongs in Counterpoint." In this, she takes songs like "Shortnin' Bread" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and applies some blistering technical development and overlays to them, proving definitively that it's not true that once you've played a folk song in a classical music piece, the only thing you can do is play it again.

Friday at the San Francisco Symphony was an Event - the long-awaited return of Michael Tilson Thomas to the podium. Since we last saw him here, we and he have been through a lot. His retirement season as music director was interrupted by the pandemic and the planned grand finales went unheard; then last season was mostly canceled; and this summer he had brain surgery, taking three months off to recover. Only three? Maybe it should have been longer, because he announced yesterday that, to "conserve energy," he's cutting back to just half of next week's concert.

But there he was last night, considerably frailer and perhaps a bit balder than when last seen, briefly acknowledging the instant standing ovation and then turning to the podium and getting down to work. Whatever may be the state of his physical person, his conducting is unimpaired, possibly better than ever. We heard a set of Mozart's German dances, presented with a weightiness and sense of integration that transformed it into a substantial composition; and Schumann's First Symphony, in a brilliantly dark, intense performance that made it sound as if it had been composed by Beethoven. The tutti passages in this work can sound shrill, but MTT and SFS had them ideally under control. This was a treasurable interpretation.

And Demarre McGill was soloist in a brief concerto for flute and strings by MTT himself, titled Notturno. This begins lyrically and builds up into a lot of fast fingering for the flute, played with disarming smoothness by McGill, barring a couple places near the end where he is apparently directed to spit into the mouthpiece.

Very good evenings out. Will I be back next week, even if MTT is only half there? You bet!

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