Originally published on May 24, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
For all the ways to prepare for this week’s San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall, whether with videos available through the San Francisco Symphony Social Network or by drawing upon SF Classical Music Examiner Scott Foglesong’s preview material for Jean Sibelius’s Opus 63 fourth symphony in A minor, nothing could substitute for the physical experience of being there. From the “chill factor” of the opening of the Sibelius, which began the evening, to Yuja Wang’s assured pianistic virtuosity in taking on the complexities of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 16 second piano concerto in G minor, capped off by the equally-demanding encore of Arcadi Volodos’ beyond-over-the-top paraphrase of the final movement (“Turkish Rondo”) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 A major piano sonata (an excerpt of which is available on video), this evening was an abundance of one physical experience after another.
There are many factors that can make a piano concerto demanding. We are usually struck by a high density of notes at a dazzling pace; but execution goes way beyond simply “scheduling” a large mass of events as if one were just getting all the holes in place for a player piano. The real performance challenge comes from the fact that just about all of those notes amount to little more than embellishment; and, if the performer cannot suss out the “music at the core” of all that embellishment and keep the “embellishing storm” from obscuring it, then one might as well be listening to one of those piano rolls. Just as it was in the days when Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote his celebrated essay, the “true art of playing keyboard instruments” lies in recognizing the embellishments for what they are and keeping them under control.
Still in her early twenties, Wang has a firm command of this “true art” and summons it with little display of those distracting theatrics that so many performers try to invoke as a substitute for genuine performance. It was also evident that she and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas had a clearly-agreed sense of how to pace all of the fireworks in Prokofiev’s score, giving the composer’s keen ear for orchestration a bit of its own time in the limelight. Indeed, it is those orchestral parts that guide us towards that “music at the core,” providing the armature around which the soloist can shape all the demanding virtuosity. In this performance I was particularly struck by how much of that core is fragmentary, formed more of motifs than of full-blown themes. Indeed, in the course of this four-movement concerto, only the middle section of the final movement really dwells in any serious way on a melodic passage that can be called a theme. This turns out to be a calm before a final storm; but it is also the only time since the beginning of the concerto when performers (and audience) can catch their breath.
The mastery of embellishment also lay at the heart of Wang’s encore. Volodos is, himself, a virtuoso pianist in the Russian tradition of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz with a penchant for transcription and paraphrase in the tradition of Joseph Hofmann. His approach to Mozart’s rondo is flamboyant, but it also rises to challenges of counterpoint that Johann Sebastian Bach had mastered so well. Not content to let Mozart play out the few themes (and, yes, they are themes this time) in his rondo in the order in which he set them, Volodos decided to pile them together in a single mass of simultaneity, it the same spirit with which Bach could join together multiple subjects in the coda of one of his organ fugues. As was the case with the Prokofiev concerto, Wang’s talent was not only a matter of putting all those notes in their proper place but also one of keeping Mozart’s own “voice” in focus in the midst of all that paraphrasing.
This idea of composing around motifs rather than themes contributes significantly to that “chill factor” of the Sibelius symphony. The overall language is one of suggestion, rather than statement; and the suggestions seem to have more to do with the free associations of a Freudian “dreamscape” (in a sense not that different from the conception of Clarise Assad’s new composition for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg) than with more traditional logic and rhetoric. The frame of reference for this symphony may thus be similar to that of August Strindberg’s Dream Play. This would be consistent with Sibelius having preceded this symphony with work on incidental music for a performance of Strindberg’s Svanevit (Swanwhite), as well as incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, another play that resides more in a dreamscape than in the logic of waking life.
Thomas prefaced his performance with a few remarks and examples of some of the disquieting elements of this symphony. This helped to prepare the ears for the music that would then unfold, bringing a clarity to the diversity of resources that keep bumping into each other and making some of the more repetitious obsessions more accessible. These were not the best conditions to feature a solo cello; but Peter Wyrick clearly grasped the spirit of the overall vision in which he played a part, lending an air of poignancy to his solo voice finding its way through this dreamscape.
In the midst of all these challenges to the serious listener, Mason Bates may have been at a disadvantage in the first performances of his “Five Pieces for Orchestra & Electronica.” Just calling this suite The B-Sides invoked the connotation of the second-rate flip sides of old pop singles, which usually served no purpose beyond material for guess-what-this-is puzzles. This is hardly consistent with Thomas having approached Bates with the idea of a new work in the spirit of the five pieces for orchestra that Arnold Schoenberg had composed in 1909.
On the other hand Schoenberg’s approach to orchestral writing was very much a shock to the system of his time. For all we know, his work may have been a factor towards Sibelius exploring motif in place of melody and in abandoning structural logic for something more like free association. Similarly, Bates’ attempt to bring the sounds of contemporary club culture into Davies could be heard (if not listened to) as a similar shock to the system. Furthermore, that shock was definitely a physical one that had not been adequately captured in any of those preparatory video experiences. At the very least this was a bold experiment; but, as probably was the case when Schoenberg’s pieces first burst upon the scene, it is hard to tell what to make of the experience beyond the initial shock. Ironically, in the context of the pervasive malaise induced by Sibelius, Bates’ sounds tended to come off as less shocking and more soothing, if not tending a bit towards the banal and trite. Perhaps the problem is that that shock value was not there at the level it had been for Schoenberg. Those of us who are not part of that club culture still cannot avoid it through the movies and television programs we watch, not to mention its impact of advertising. We have become inured to the sounds of that culture, so our systems are far more shocked by the uncertainties of Sibelius’ moods or piano virtuosity carried far beyond what we have come to expect.