Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave the first of two “bon voyage” concerts, previewing selections that SFS will be playing during their European tour, which begins next week. Pianist Yuja Wang will join SFS on this tour. She performed as soloist last night and will do so again for the second tour preview concert, which takes place tonight (August 22). Last night her performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) concerto in G major was framed by Arnold Schoenberg’s 1943 “Theme and Variations” (Opus 43b) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 (fifth) symphony in E minor.
MTT’s Schoenberg selection should provide an excellent introduction of SFS to European audiences. Ironically, it is music that Schoenberg composed after he moved to the United States; and, even more ironically, it was not originally composed for orchestra. Instead, Schoenberg had been approach by Carl Engel, President of G. Schirmer, Inc., to write a piece for wind band. Schoenberg appreciated Engel’s interest in broadening the repertoire for such ensembles; and, in the interest of composing something that would not be rejected as unplayable, he chose to depart from working with his twelve-tone approach to atonality.
The result will surprise anyone who thinks of Schoenberg as a composer of “difficult” music. The piece had a well-defined short theme in G minor, whose variations put the ensemble through its paces through seven variations, moving into G major for the Finale. Schoenberg was so satisfied with what he had achieved that he rescored the work for full orchestra, hence the “b” on the opus number. (The band version is Opus 43a.)
In this latter version one could almost call the composition “the adult person’s guide to the orchestra.” (Benjamin Britten would not compose “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” until 1946.) Schoenberg was as interested in characterizing each variation (and, for that matter, the theme itself) through instrumental color as he was in different elaborations on a rock-solid harmonic progression, very much what Schoenberg himself called a “return to the older style.” Furthermore, the overall architecture is very much organized around a contour of tempo changes, through which each variation is clearly delimited; and that “return to the older style” was accompanied by a return to older forms. Thus, the middle of the set is characterized by a clearly identifiable waltz, while the sixth variation is fugal. None of this, however, prepares the listener for the Finale, in which Schoenberg’s joyfully (yes, Schoenberg could be joyous when he wished) piles all of these different approaches to variation on top of each other; and there is even one last major-minor semitone drop that seems to show Schoenberg memorializing one of his favorite tennis partners, George Gershwin.
If joy was a dominant factor in Schoenberg’s rhetoric, MTT was just as joyous in his interpretation. Clarity was always of the essence; but, MTT emphasized clarity to allow the listener to appreciate the many melodic twists and instrumental sonorities that Schoenberg had summoned in the in interest of a diverse set of variations. (One problem with that “older style” was that too many of the lesser composers tended to treat a set of variations as “one damned thing after another.”) Indeed, there was so much to appreciate as this music unfolded under MTT’s interpretation that one could only wish the piece were performed more often.
Wang then joined MTT for a presentation of a prime example of that “older style” at its best. Many would say that Opus 58 was Beethoven’s most expressive and imaginative concerto, and I am not about to argue with them. Wang clearly had strong thoughts about expressiveness in mind as she approached her solo execution of the opening measures. Through subdued dynamics and a noticeable effort to stretch the sense of duration, she seemed to anticipate one of the most salient qualities of many of Beethoven’s late works, his calculated (and frequently successful) effort to convey the impression of time standing still. This should not be taken as anachronistic on Wang’s part, since the earliest signs of this rhetorical approach can be found in the Opus 59 (“Rasumovsky”) string quartets, which Beethoven composed in 1806, the year in which he completed Opus 58.
Unfortunately, Wang did not quite seem to follow through on her rhetorical insights when it came to interacting with the ensemble. Indeed, in too many of the highly embellished passages, her execution tended to sound as if she was letting her underlying sense of pulse get away from her. Fortunately, she had recovered her bearings in time to the second (Andante con moto) movement, perhaps because she could approach it almost as an opera singer delivering a recitative with instrumental accompaniment; and, by the time she moved into the concluding Rondo, there was no doubt that she had regained solid ground. Indeed, that recitative analogy was reinforced through the solo passages she took with “continuo accompaniment” from Associate Principal Cello Peter Wyrick.
Sadly, the ground was not so solid for Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 symphony. This is an expansive composition that too easily can be classified as sprawling; and, during last night’s performance, MTT never really seemed to get that sprawl under control. It was easy to recall the reaction of music critic Julius Korngold to some of the efforts of his composer son, Erich, that showed similar tendencies. Korngold caustically ordered his son, “Don’t bathe!” If there was a sense that Tchaikovsky may have been bathing in his many opulent instrumental renderings of his rich thematic material, then that sense was matched by the impression that MTT was bathing in the resulting sonorities.
It was not particularly pleasant. One also had to contend with what seems to have become an MTT signature, the act of swinging the baton with both hands as if it were some cross between a baseball bat and a golf club. (Hunter Pence belongs on the Davies podium?) Yes, there is no avoiding the impression that Tchaikovsky went over the top, probably excessively, in this symphony; but that should not be taken as an invitation for all of us, performers and audience alike, to go there with him. Beneath all of those excesses, one can probably find a firmer core of music struggling to get out; and that core deserves a bit more discipline. That discipline can only come from a leadership that is more interested in charting the right course than in luxuriating in the results.