By Richard S. Ginell
SAN FRANCISCO – It has been a transformative time at the San Francisco Symphony over the last 24 years under Michael Tilson Thomas, who helped vault the orchestra into what must now be called a Big Seven of American orchestras (the Los Angeles Philharmonic, too, made the grade in that period, joining Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia). And with an eye focused upon an eventful number, Season No. 25 will be the last for Tilson Thomas as he shifts his focus toward composition and other projects.
Tilson Thomas has been able to avoid the pitfalls that often accompany a long-running music directorship by keeping fresh ideas in programming and presentations coming in amazing profusion. As it happens, this season is seeing somewhat of a relaxation of the adventuresome spirit that the MTT years have brought to San Francisco in favor of several trips down memory lane – a sort of summing up.
This fall’s concerts at Davies Symphony Hall started Sept. 12 with Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, the piece that launched the orchestra’s record label SFS Media, and continues Sept. 26-28 with a mostly-Stravinsky concert reflecting Tilson Thomas’ association with the composer when he was a teenaged whiz-kid at USC (his friends knew him as Mike Thomas then). And as he often is on commemorative occasions, John Adams was in the mix Sept. 19 as MTT led the world premiere of Adams’ latest composition, a seven-minute, 53-second-long display of rambunctious symphonic hijinks called I Still Dance.
With typical wry humor, Adams said at the pre-concert interview that the title of the piece – dedicated to Tilson Thomas and his husband and do-everything manager Joshua Robison – came from a comment Robison made in casual conversation. Adams asked Robison whether he has maintained his interest in swing dancing, and Robison replied, “I still dance.” Voila! a title was born, one that will join other idiosyncratic Adams names for short orchestral pieces like Lollapalooza and one that is constantly roving around the globe, Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
What I Still Dance has in common with the above two pieces is brevity, energy, and groove, now allied with the increasing complexity that Adams has been packing into his pieces over the last decade at least. The writing is extremely busy from the opening arpeggio-like figures for the clarinets (Adams’ original instrument) through a succession of other motives pushed relentlessly forward by a six-person percussion section. I wouldn’t call it “disco” like Adams does, but the steady drive of the drums – among which a taiko drum could be seen – runs on a similar pounding idea. You could hear a wisp of what sounded like the Badinerie from J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 just before I Still Dance quiets down at the end without quite losing its groove. If the intent was to capture the “continued youthful vitality” of MTT and Robison – both now in their 70s – the piece succeeds noisily, though some details like the part for electric bass guitar seemed lost in a cloud of hall reverberation.
Rather than tackle one of Rachmaninoff’s often-played crowd pleasers, Tilson Thomas and the Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov instead turned to the Piano Concerto No. 4, which has yet to break through into mass popularity. It’s possible that the main reason is the shortage of hummable melodies that grab audiences by the heart and sleeve, although the brooding tune that dominates the second movement sticks around in the mind for a long time. The pianistic fireworks don’t get going until the finale, and Trifonov, who until then was playing with a rather light touch, was ready with snap, rhythmic punch, and technical ease that put the music over with pizzazz. MTT and the SFS backed Trifonov with an astonishingly detailed, clear orchestral texture, the fantasy element captured. Trifonov resumed his light-fingered ways with the tiny Scriabin Etude Op. 42, No. 3, a rippling thing of uncertain tonality, as an encore.
MTT and his orchestra then took another of this season’s victory laps by returning to the scene of their Schumann symphony cycle – released two years ago in a lavishly-packaged mini-book two-CD set – with the Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”). If anything, the great swinging theme of the first movement has even greater rhythmic lift now, and the entire performance sounded deeper and more lived-in, as if it was played by one person on a giant, mellifluous pipe organ. It appears that MTT will be leaving this orchestra in terrific shape for his equally demanding successor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.