How do you get some of the most “standard” repertoire in classical music to sound new and fresh? Put it in the hands of one of the greatest living conductors and a finely honed ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony. For the Celebrity Series on Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas led familiar works in as fine a concert as this reviewer has ever heard, replete with revelatory details, tight ensemble playing, sensitivity to dynamics and overall melodic line, bright colors, and vibrant breath.
In his 25th and final season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, and 50 years beyond his Koussevitzky Prize winning days when he was the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, he must be of a certain age, but you’d never know it from watching him conduct. Perhaps it is the tai chi-like movement of the body that imparts such agelessness, or the expansive mind that keeps him appearing so young. Not only a thoughtful conductor, he is also an excellent pianist and a very, very good composer.
Thomas wrote Agnegram in celebration of the 90th birthday of a beloved patron of the SFS, Agnes Albert. She must have been quite a gal. Thomas spoke about her as introduction to the piece, saying she had played in a piano concerto with Pierre Monteux, piloted a boat down the Colorado (only the 4th woman to do so), and in her 80’s memorized a new Emily Dickinson poem every week to keep her mind sharp. Her generosity was particularly dedicated to the SFS and to music education. Thomas used the musical notes from her name (A, G, E, S, etc.) to create a frothy, exuberant overture that recalled some favorite music of Albert’s (we couldn’t miss the 1812 Overture), along with cheeky, Carl Stalling-like percussion all woven together with a Copland-esque Americana sound that must be more Thomas. The depth in the humor made one eager to hear what will come from the pen of Maestro Thomas once he has “retired”. He has expressed a desire to have more time to write music; clearly this would be a gift to all.
Very handsome, with a Game of Thrones goatee and ponytail and incredible chops, Christian Tetzlaff soloed in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, op. 64. His repertoire ranges from solo Bach to world premieres, with performances this season alone with Cleveland, Boston, London and other major symphonies, tours of Vietnam, and as the Artist in Residence at London’s Wigmore Hall.
This performance was flawless in every sense. In the midst of numerous passages of double stops and arpeggiated chords, Tetzlaff always made the melodic line clear. This clarity, and the incredibly sensitive dynamic control of the orchestra made for a great tenderness in the interpretation without being overly sentimental. The three movements are played attacca, but the third movement, Allegro molto vivace was incredibly vivace! Bravo to the fabulous flute section which matched Tetzlaff at this dizzying pace. Especially magical was the way this main theme was broken up across the orchestra, like a sprinkling of fairy dust over all. Light, airy, joyous! The audience gave such an ovation that Tetzlaff encored with one of the movements of Bach’s Third Partita. This made abundantly clear where he got his sense of line. To hear a single violin playing in the acoustic of Symphony Hall with every breath held was a memorable experience.
The orchestra really shone in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, op. 55 “Eroica.” Without ever being slow or ponderous, this interpretation conveyed ease. The music could breathe, the lines were shapely, and in every gesture led to a destination. The musical ideas flowed logically, to expand, to break apart, to show Beethoven’s creation of revolutionary musical language.
An example of this would be the bass line in the second movement. There are notes before the downbeat of the measure that are often played as “grace notes”, or decorations on the main note. Here they were slowed just a bit to create a real line.
The horn section had an outstanding night. At times they sounded dark and menacing, almost Don Giovanni overture-like, then bright and brassy in the Trio of the Scherzo, and majestic in the fugue in the last movement in the climax of a gorgeous intertwining of counterpoint.
It also became clear how well Thomas’s overture paired with this Symphony: they played the four-note theme of the finale with lighthearted humor, which matched the sentiment of Agnegram, but also made for an incredible contrast with the majesty of the later fugue.
Thomas thanked the grateful Boston audience, recalling how he used to sit in the balcony for concerts so many years ago. The orchestra played one of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances (“But not the one you think!”) as an encore.
Several audience members remarked that “It doesn’t get any better than this!” I’d have to agree.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.