For any major orchestra concert programs are decided long in advance of when the performances actually take place. Preparations must be made involving not only the Music Director but also visiting artists, all of whom have complex schedules that tend to extend for years into the future. It was thus a dark coincidence that the San Francisco Symphony was scheduled to play Gustav Mahler’s intensely tragic sixth symphony shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) decided that the show would go on, so to speak, arguing that Mahler’s music would have a necessarily cathartic effect. On the basis of subsequent reports, his reasoning seems to have been valid.
Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the first of the three concerts of this week’s subscription series began at a time when there was still considerable confusion in Paris. By that time the number of fatalities had been set around 120, but there was still uncertainty as to how many terrorist attacks had taken place almost concurrently on a busy Friday night in the center of Paris. Many of us had spent the afternoon monitoring sources such as the BBC, struggling to piece together enough facts to account for a valid news story at a time when the authorities themselves were having trouble mustering those facts. Would music, once again, serve as an antidote for the troubled soul?
By a fortuitous coincidence, it turned out that the first half of last night’s program, with MTT on the podium, was devoted entirely to the music of Jean Sibelius. MTT had chosen to begin with “The Swan of Tuonela,” the second of four tone poems based on legends from Kalevala that Sibelius published as his Opus 22, which he called the Lemminkäinen Suite. The swan of the title “floats majestically” on the river that surrounds the island of Tuonela, which is the land of death in Finnish mythology. (The quoted phrase comes Sibelius’ inscription for this composition.) Last night’s concert began in the shadows of death itself.
The listening experience was not so much cathartic as it was a reassuring reminder of the natural order of things. Russ deLuna’s English horn work gave voice to the swan itself with a rhetoric that was poignant and comforting at the same time. The flow of the river “responds” to that song with a rising solo passage that begins with a cello (Peter Wyrick) and passes seamlessly to a viola (Jonathan Vinocour). These utterances are delivered in a setting in which the lower register prevails, two bassoons, four horns, three trombones, and a bass clarinet as the only representative of the clarinet family. Passages are underscored with hushed rumblings on the bass drum, only occasionally reinforced by the pitched strokes of the timpani. This music was dark when Sibelius composed it, but in the context of yesterday’s events that darkness took on unanticipated connotations and their contingent reflections.
That sense of poignancy then continued into the opening passages of the Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor. Leonidas Kavakos was the soloist; and, from his opening gesture against the hushed murmur of the string section, it was clear that the mood of the evening’s “overture” would continue. As was observed at the end of last month, Kavakos has established himself as somewhat of an authority on this concerto, having mastered not only the composer’s final version, completed in 1905 (which was performed last night), but also the original 1904 version. Last night made it clear that he had full command and control of every iota set down by Sibelius in the violin part.
This was not just a matter of summoning all virtuosity to take on the two (“Count them!,” as P. T. Barnum would have said) cadenzas in the first movement. Far more important was his command of soft dynamics, delivering certain passages almost at the level of audibility but with a clarity that enabled every single note to signify. He also took an uncanny approach to executing many of the darker passages without vibrato, almost as if they continued the evocation of Tuonela at the beginning of the program. The result was a concerto reading that almost seemed to serve as a response to the overture.
Kavakos followed up on his bows by taking an encore, the Gavotte en Rondeau movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1006 E major partita for solo violin. The effect was that of a splendid dawn emerging at the end of a long night. Kavakos played the music almost as if he were making it up as he proceeded, perfectly honoring the dual pillars of technical mastery and imaginative invention that support all of the solo violin sonatas and partitas. Indeed, several of the embellishments sounded as if they really were made up on the spot; but Kavakos also knew better than to overload his performance with excessive embellishment. Most important was the delight that his command of Bach could be as perceptive as his mastery of Sibelius.
The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Robert Schumann’s Opus 97 (third) symphony in E-flat major, named the “Rhenish” after the Rhine River. In his Inside Music Talk Scott Foglesong pointed out that E-flat major was also the key of Ludwig van Beethoven’s third symphony (Opus 55) and he suggested that the vigorously flowing energy of Schumann’s opening Lebhaft (lively) movement reflected the similar energy found in the Allegro con brio movement that begins Beethoven’s symphony. There is definitely merit to the idea of this path of influence from Beethoven to Schumann, but there is also a more subtle path in the opposite direction. Towards the end of Schumann’s first movement, he introduces a brief descending motif before launching into the recapitulation. That motif would later emerge as the full-blown opening theme in the opening movement of the Opus 90 of Johannes Brahms, his third symphony (in the key of F major, rather than E-flat major, though).
In fact there are any number of delightful virtues in Schumann’s Opus 97, and Foglesong proved himself to be an excellent advocate for those virtues. Sadly, his advocacy surpassed MTT’s to a disconcerting degree. Last night’s performance tended to labor under the burden of loud brass and frequently slogging rhythms. There were certainly moments when MTT summoned up the necessary detail, particularly in the intricate counterpoint of the fourth Feierlich (solemnly) movement, which is usually taken as a depiction of the Cologne Cathedral. However, in many of the more visceral passages, it seemed as if MTT’s movements (including his preference for swinging golf clubs and baseball bats) were reflecting the music, rather than leading it. This brought to mind the “cardinal sin” of the early twentieth-century music critic Julius Korngold: MTT was “bathing” in the music, almost the same way he seemed to be “bathing” in Tchaikovsky this past August. Schumann deserved better.