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Review: San Francisco Symphony Is ‘Gripping and Wondrous’ at Carnegie Hall

By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, April 10, 2017

In 1940, Béla Bartók and his family fled Hungary and fascism for the United States. By 1943, he was impoverished, in poor health, and in despair over his composing career. Fortunately for all of us, providence arrived in the form of Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who offered Bartók a $1000 commission for a new orchestral work. The result was the magnificent Concerto for Orchestra, one of the great glories of the twentieth century symphonic repertoire, which was given a gripping and wondrous performance on April 7 by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

The piece, as the title implies, manages to showcase every section of the orchestra and nearly every principal player, in bravura and ingenious fashion. A couple of great back-to-back examples occur near the beginning: the three trumpets state the opening theme in a series of mystical pianissimo utterances over the course of twelve bars, at which point the violins come barging in with a fraught passionate restatement. In this performance, the trumpets sounded quietly ominous yet hypnotically gleaming, and the violins were genuinely hair-raising in response. The flawless manner in which the orchestra pulled off this striking juxtaposition boded well for the rest of the movement, and indeed, the whole piece. The second movement is a compositional tour de force, with each statement of the theme presented by instruments in pairs, each characterized by a different interval: the bassoons play in sixths, the oboes in thirds, clarinets in sevenths, etc. This proved to be a glittering showcase for the SFS’s woodwinds (especially the bassoons, who declaimed their melody with rugged projection), and also for the brass section (one of the nation’s best), which capped the cavalcade of paired soloists with a splendid, smoothly inflected chorale.

The third movement, profound, restless, and mournful, opens with a creepy landscape of mysterious roulades and magical flickers, then proceeds to expand on the themes of the first movement. Thomas, who combines pinpoint clarity and shapeliness of phrasing in his conducting as well as anybody, seemed somewhat oddly detached in this movement, but whipped the orchestra into the requisite frenzy for the harrowing climax. The fourth movement, a remarkable tapestry of disparate sections, is distinguished by a gorgeous, romantic melody that sweeps in out of nowhere, first in the violas, and then in the violins. Thomas resisted the urge to be overindulgent, and the theme landed with arresting yet understated beauty. (The reprise with muted violins was exquisite.) The fifth movement, flashy and exciting, featured bat-out-of-hell pacing that showcased the string players’ impeccable technique, a precisely executed fugal passage, and some more blazing work for the brass. The coda landed with a wallop, leaving this listener in awe of both the orchestra’s virtuosity and Bartók’s compositional ingenuity.

In the first half, cellist Gautier Capuçon gave a volcanic account of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major. Composed in 1959, during the comparatively tolerant Krushchev era when Shostakovich was no longer under Stalin’s thumb, the piece nonetheless spills over with nervous energy, searing intensity, and at times near-tragic depth. It’s also an enormous crowd-pleaser with blistering technical demands, and a spectacular showcase for a player of Capuçon’s outsized prowess. He dug in deeply to the strings, generating powerful, deeply affecting sound. Even with the fastest spiccato bow strokes he maintained unerring clarity of tone. In one passage, his ghostly, high artificial harmonics (accompanied in the orchestra by pianissimo clarinet) transplanted us into the mysterious sonic netherworld of the composer’s nightmares. During the restless, mournful, oceanic cadenza, it felt like no one was breathing, in either orchestra or audience. The fireworks at the end of the cadenza let directly into the third movement, a blinding sequence of high register pyrotechnics and top speed passagework. One always had the sense, however, that Capucon’s astonishing technique was in the service of Shostakovich’s searing psychic probings, not merely empty virtuoso display. As an encore, Capuçon tossed off a clever arrangement of the March from Prokofieff’s “Music for Children.”

Cellist Gautier Capuçon and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.

The curtain raiser was John Cage’s The Seasons, written in 1947 as a ballet score for his longtime collaborator, choreographer Merce Cunningham. The strangest thing about this piece is probably its lack of strangeness; certainly, one might have expected something more cutting-edge from a man who wrote pieces involving radios, prepared pianos, indeterminate numbers and types of instruments, or (most famously) absolute silence. Instead, The Seasons has some modernist shrieking and growling, as well as inventive, non-melodic use of orchestral color, but mostly it invokes romantic moodiness and at times even serenity. As my companion put it, “It was actually kind of lovely.”


The San Francisco Symphony in concert at Carnegie Hall on April 7, 2017. Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor; Gautier Capuçon, cello.

CAGE The Seasons
SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No. 1
BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra

PROKOFIEV “March of the Small Soldiers”
IVES “The Alcotts” from A Concord Symphony (orch. Brant)


Cover: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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