in: Reviews

November 17, 2014

A Prodigal Returns with Genuine Goods

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The wunderkind Boston passed over in the 70s.

The wunderkind Boston passed over in the 70s.

The parable of the prodigal son is deservedly well worn. We enjoy its narrative arc of the wunderkind packing up to explore the world, yet eventually returning home to the embrace of a breathless community. Since his departure from Boston 40 years ago, Tilson Thomas has thrived as one of America’s leading public advocates of classical music, continuing the conductor-as-evangelist model most famously associated with his mentor and fellow once-Bostonian, Leonard Bernstein. In the cases of both of these gentlemen, Boston’s loss became America’s gain.

The conductor’s crack ensemble is the San Francisco Symphony, currently making a tour of seven US cities. His 20-year-tenure at the helm of one of the handful of top-notch US orchestras has been marked by stellar and visionary musicmaking, featuring a strong commitment to refined orchestral color as found in fin du siècle Germanic (particularly, Mahler) and French (Ravel and Debussy) music, post-Romantic Russian composers (especially Prokofiev), and, notably, contemporary music. All of these (save the Mahler) were on display in rare form Sunday night in a one-off concert of “Legacies and Lineages” at Symphony Hall hosted by Celebrity Series; it was packed to the gills with an astute Boston crowd, a number of whom harbored fond recollections of Tilson Thomas’s work with the BSO in the mid-1970s.

The program began with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1861), whose carousing ascending 4ths and quicksilver string passages acted as a stand-in for the tumbling fingers of a virtuoso pianist. Hearing Liszt’s music, one never loses sight of the pianistic inclinations of its composer; the rather conventional orchestration (strings play the fast lines, horns resigned to blurts) only underscored this. Tilson Thomas drew out luxurious imagery, including Associate Principal cellist Peter Wyrick’s fleeting waltz solo, which served to drop us into Old World Vienna. I was struck by the manner in which this music seems to ask questions, yet unlike Mahler, doesn’t seem terribly interested in answering them. (What lies beneath the surface of all this Lisztian sheen and veneer? Only sprightly woodwinds and fairy blossoms, it seems.) Tilson Thomas’s presence at the podium was less domineering conductor and more impish puppeteer; here’s a reminder that by the time we hear a performance by an orchestra of this stature, the hard work of shaping phrases, colors, and balances has already been achieved in rehearsal, and thus an able conductor takes on the role of “chief reminder.”

Violinist Gil Shaham, one of a handful of mega-celebrity soloists in the world of classical music, stepped (nay, merrily pranced!) forward to take the spotlight for Prokofiev’s ebullient Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor. A finer representation of Prokofiev’s endlessly fertile musical imagination could hardly be found; is there a better writer of melodic lines containing a modern sense of angularity, invention and yearning, yet all the while revealing a deep architectural logic?

Though some might be put off by his showmanship, I find Shaham’s boundless enthusiasm for this music utterly captivating and refreshing. In a word, Shaham owns this piece. One imagines whether Shaham finds the moments of his day when he is not playing in front of an audience tedious! (I wonder whether this innate sense of urgency and desire to project and share the music is the greatest distinguishing element separating star soloists from section players?) Confined within a space of no more than four feet, Shaham confidently darted back and forth like an eager cocker spaniel, holding his fiddle like a rapier. In the midst of playing the work’s most fiendishly challenging passages, Shaham smiled and exchanged looks and winks with the principal violinist, lurching back to share the joke with Tilson Thomas. It’s easy to see why this man sticks out in the often stodgy, over-ritualized world of classical music stage performance. Part of Shaham’s artistry, like that of many great artists, is the manner in which he allows a listener simply to forget about technique and limitations, and instead, gleefully buckle up alongside the soloist. If Prokofiev designed this piece as a vehicle for a star soloist, Shaham is the racecar driver and we’re riding shotgun.

The second half featured two works, but it may be fruitful to think of them as a cohesive package. Twenty-nine-year-old Samuel Adams (I’ll leave the corporate sponsorship jokes for another writer, as well as any overt comparisons to the music of his famous composer father John) is a composer emerging from a distinctly 21st-century sonic landscape. His piece Drift and Providence is all mood, color, and assemblage, and in it, Adams seems to breathe the language of dissonance as surely as earlier composers might have breathed the language of functional harmony. With dissonance so thoroughly taken for granted as a swatch on the modern composer’s palette—and how refreshing it is to hear music so confidently distanced from the overbearing influence of the academic wars which turned off late 20th century audiences—our attention shifts to the physical nature of sound, and in this case the potentialities of orchestral sound. What might constitute a 21st century sense of orchestration? In a world saturated by electronically processed sound, does an analog toolkit arising specifically from the technological soundworld of late-19th century (and prior) Europe, remain compelling? Does writing for orchestra in 2014 constitute a potentially subversive act?

Adams’s piece provides one possible answer to these questions. It’s a mélange of effects and shifting prisms of color: soaring, sweeping strings, crunching woodwinds high in their tessitura, floating Morton Feldman-esque marimba chatter, all coalescing to create a gorgeous mood of suspended time, and perhaps, characters conversing in a drama. Yet the danger of luxuriating in atmosphere is the potential for stagnation; there’s a reason Brian Eno doesn’t compose symphonies, but does offer statements like “Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.”

The San Francisco Symphony players seemed entirely at ease in this precarious soundscape, one which would be so easily sunk by lack of commitment; this certainly reflects Tilson Thomas’s staunch advocacy of new music. That said, one perhaps desires for the imagination reflected in this work to be given freer reign than is allowable in what remains a 19th-century dichotomy between performers and audience. For example, could this work be performed out in the city? Would listening to it privately on earbuds on a busy subway be a better aesthetic fit than crunched in amongst impatient coughers? Immersive, environmental works such as John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit—typically performed outdoors with audiences mingling amongst the performers—are demanding such artistic risks, and succeeding in pushing art music, quite literally, beyond the walls of the institutionalized concert hall. An enthusiastic 20% of the audience (as much as one might expect given the let’s-be-very-honest-here well-heeled and depressingly homogeneous demographic present in the hall) leapt to their feet at the piece’s conclusion, and I wondered whether the composer (who Tilson Thomas brought out onstage) had written a coda for audience members in my section who all seemed to ask one another, “Did you like it?”

In a streak of programmatic genius, Tilson Thomas continued the second half with master orchestrator Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, a work which puzzled and challenged its bourgeoisie audience at its 1912 Parisian premiere much in the same way Adams’s does today. The opening murmurs of arpeggiated flutes provided a fascinating continuation of Adams’s soundworld, and Tilson Thomas’s soft, patient pacing, perfect for Ravel’s dips and dives into the spectrum of functional harmony, refused to give away the goods too soon. Yet perhaps unlike anything found in Adams’s piece, when Ravel’s cresting climax (heard prominently in the brass) arrived, it seemed a rhetorical and sonic device crafted specifically for the hall, and elicited a number of audible gasps around me. The modern concert hall is, of course, a historical and architectural invention not found in nature, and Tilson Thomas’s juxtaposition of these two pieces on the second half deftly illustrated its glories and, perhaps, constraints.

After numerous curtain calls, Tilson Thomas returned to the podium and pointed out the balcony seat where “the 24-year old version of himself” used to take in the Boston Symphony. As the San Francisco players began an encore of Grieg’s lush and serene Våren (The Last Spring), I permitted myself a gaze backward into the hall, curious to scan some faces in the audience. One couple, probably in their late 70s, seemed particularly lost in enraptured reverie, and taking in the image of their upturned faces and blissfully closed eyes, I considered the notion that perhaps there are things worth holding onto in this world.

See related article here.

Jason McCool holds degrees from the Eastman School of Music in jazz trumpet performance and the University of Maryland in historical musicology. Formerly a music professor and arts reviewer in Washington DC, he currently is a doctoral student at BU in historical musicology.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting to read, regarding the Mephisto Waltz, that the “string passages acted as a stand-in for the tumbling fingers of a virtuoso pianist” since the rising 5ths are meant to suggest the devil tuning up his fiddle; but I kind of agree that, in this case, the imitation (piano version) is more interesting than the thing being imitated.

    Comment by Michael Monroe — November 17, 2014 at 8:01 pm

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