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An Orchestra For Our Time

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
09/25/2008 -  & Sept. 4, 6, 7 (San Francisco)
György Ligeti: Lontano
Francis Poulenc: Concerto in D Minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony Number 5 in B-flat Major, opus 100

Katia and Marielle Labèque (Pianos)
San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (Music Director and Conductor)

Michael Tilson Thomas

The arrival of the San Francisco Symphony in New York gives multiple reasons to rejoice. First, their programs are, like their home town, diverse, unusual, eccentric. Second, the youngish players have the temperament and experience to make contemporary music sound natural, not a chore. Third, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas isn’t afraid to break the rules. One maxim is that conducting should be from the waist up, but Maestro Thomas isn’t afraid to kick up his legs, swing around, and give some hand directions which are hardly kosher.

But his orchestra knows him, they react with alacrity, and in the opening work of this most enchanting program, no orthodox conductor could get away with ordinary motions.

The late György Ligeti spent his own life breaking rules, but hardly made a point of it. In an era when musical mothers’ milk in Europe was dodecaphonic, Ligeti had too much energy to follow such stricture. His Cello Concerto, I believe, is the only work to give a replication of quantum physics. His one opera was the most macabre work ever written, his piano etudes may be quasi-impossible for a pianist with only 10 fingers, but they are deliciously entertaining.

While his humor was as macabre as his opera, he was capable of composing works which could drill a tiny hole into the subconscious. And such a piece was Lontano (“Far Away”). The piece wasn’t quite corrupted by its appearance in Kubrick’s 2001 (the composer actually though it fit in quite well), but hearing this extremely complex work by itself gives honest revelation.

Like his Cello Concerto, each note becomes the basis of a fractional doubling of itself within a fractional amount of time. From the first flute through clarinets to the horns, one hears the meters doubled and tripled among themselves. It is a canonic form gone wild (with a few moments of stasis), but this is hardly a tapestry of twitters and blurs. Not with a good conductor at the helm.

This was Maestro Thomas, who could hardly signal in soloists (they appeared and disappeared in space and time like electrons), but whose broad strokes and fine soloists gave an organic (or electronic) glisten to each note. It was a thing of both waves and particles,. The last six measures were “conducted silences”. But Enlightened Ones know that in a parallel universe, it is still being played.

The Poulenc Two-Piano Concerto is a personal favorite, since I always loved the music in Indonesia, and this begins and ends with some not-too-ersatz gamelan riffs. In between, Poulenc inserts a few jolly chansons, dozens of duets with the first chairs (in the first movement), a wonderful Mozartean theme (to open the second movement), and the usual Poulenc carnival ending.

This is a work just made for the Labèque Sisters, and they romped through it with all the panache which Poulenc needs. Not a pause, not a nuance, but simple vibrancy. For an encore they played at one piano a 30-second Polka by one Adolfo Berio, but that too could have been written by Poulenc or Ibert.

The second half was the always astonishing, Prokofiev Fifth Symphony, which showed San Francisco at its best, with every choir getting a chance to shine. Nothing was idiosyncratic here (though I haven’t yet heard a conductor take the third movement at its specified Adagio). Then something astonishing happened. The ironic beginning of the second movement was wonderful, with some beautiful articulation. But the centre of the movement, usually simply melodic, was turned into a bright, energetic, syncopated section which……

Which, for the first time seemed like the dance of a Slavic Leonard Bernstein. The bounce, the vitality, the color, the joy. Perhaps this was unconscious, perhaps my own imagination. But whatever it was, Maestro Thomas commanded his troops to paint dynamic colors throughout the entire hall.

San Francisco Symphony’s web site

Harry Rolnick



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