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Eclectic And Electric

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/25/2010 -  & March 4, 5, 6, 7 (San Francisco), 18 (Champaign-Urbana), 19 (Ann Arbor), 24 (Wsashington)
Victor Kissine: Post-scriptum (New York Premiere)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et senimentales
Franz Liszt: Tasso: Lament and Triumph

Christian Tetzlaff (Violin)
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (Music Director and Conductor)

M. Tilson Thomas (© Terrence McCarthy)

The musical spectra of Michael Tilson Thomas are as spacious as San Francisco Bay on a sunny day. He is a singular exponent of American music, having been reared in the prime of the Copland school. He can play Mahler with the best Europeans (as he may show tonight), and his Russian performances are perhaps too consciously homages to his own Russian-Jewish-theatrical heritage. His sovereignty over the West Coast musical scene ranges from Terry Riley through Anne Frank, the latter for whom he composed a heart-wrenching tribute.

Last night, Mr. Thomas came close to embracing it all. The first Russian work, by Victor Kissine, was actually a paean to an American composer, Charles Ives. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was more Slavic than usual. And the final two works showed his San Francisco Symphony at its brilliant best.

Victor Kissine is little known here, lurking in the shadows behind Schnittke and Gubaidulina. Perhaps this is because he left Russia many years ago. Reversing the life of Reinhold Glière, who departed from Belgium to settle in Russia, Kissine lives now in Belgium, where he fashions his music like a Bruge chocolatier creating his sweets. He is fastidious, he delights in shimmering colors and romantic passions, but at heart is a fairly formal architect.

This, at least, is what I gathered from my first hearing, the New York premiere of a piece inspired by Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Not the entire work, but the solo trumpet call which summons up the Transcendentalist vision of eternity.

Mr. Kissine’s work was the opposite. Charles Ives was looking for the mystical stasis. Mr. Kissine used the trumpet calls–transferred to different brass sections with variations–as a kind of leitmotiv between volatile orchestral colors. They ranged from the most sensitive solo violin–played against a bowed marimba key!!–, to a series of glistening shimmering scales up and down the orchestral ladder. Cymbals were also bowed, the Wagner tuba took the place of Ives’ trumpet calls, the strings went to notes high enough that only a dog would be able to respond.

He is obviously a fastidious composer, but nothing was created for effect or trickery. Instead, he created colors so complex that one couldn’t immediately analyze from whence they were coming. Nothing was over-sweet or over-dissonant, but the paintings, held together by Ives’ stentorian trumpet song, was a dizzying delight.

One could have compared this, in a way, to Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, for their swirling colors. Ravel was bounded by the rhythm of the waltz, but nuns fret not at their cloister doors, so Ravel let his fastidious mind run fairly wild. The San Francisco Symphony played them elegantly enough. But my real revelation came in a program quote from Debussy which was new to me. “Ravel’s ear,” said Debussy, “was the finest ever to have existed.”

The soloist was the always interesting Christian Tetzlaff. He had to have been interesting for “another” Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto would hardly be worthy of a New York performance.

Mr. Tetzlaff, as always produced the sweetest most gorgeously etched tones when necessary, as in the long cadenza. But Mr.Tetzlaff possibly wanted to have fun with the first movement. At first one was annoyed that the rhythms weren’t straightforward, that the intonation wasn’t perfect. And then it became clear that Mr. Tetzlaff wanted to give the illusion of sheer improvisation, he pretended that he had looked at the score one time and then decided to play it his way.

And needless to say, Mr. Thomas, went along with the game. For this was not a flawless Tchaikovsky, it was a Tchaikovsky which was a bit eccentric, a little off-putting, and thus even more enjoyable.

After the elegiac second movement, both Tetzlaff and Thomas came together in a hell-for-leather finale. I have rarely heard any American orchestra sound so Russian (Thomas got bassoons and trumpets to play with hard sounds), and for a violinist to play so quickly through the gypsy melodies.

A recording of this performance could be prove embarrassing. Live it sounded like….well, like a heavenly amusement.

The final work was hardly up to the musical standards of the first three. Oh, yes, I do like Liszt’s tone poems, but Tasso, based on poems and dramas about the 16th Century poet, is not one of his greatest works. The opening showed the San Francisco Symphony with some great sounds. But the Liszt, alas, doesn’t keep up the inspiration at all. The end is bombast pure and simple.

To his credit, Michael Tilson Thomas took it very seriously. Tonight, though, with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, his serious side will get a workout more fitting for his prowess.

Harry Rolnick



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