San Francisco Symphony: Beethoven, Mozart, Schoenberg, Strauss

January 12, 2018

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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The Austro-Hungarian empire may have died long ago but its musical products are still alive and kicking. Vide the San Francisco Symphony and its outgoing music director Michael Tilson Thomas pairing Mozart — born Salzburg; Beethoven — born Bonn; Richard Strauss — born Munich; and Schoenberg — born Vienna — with Poland-born Emanuel Ax as piano soloist. But let’s not forget that the late French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez said that ” we have to fight the past to survive” and I think he also said that going to the symphony to hear the tiny approved repertory of classical pieces was like going to a museum to see the same familiar paintings in their masterpiece collections. And that’s undeniably true when big American orchestras,who look like corporate buildings braced to absorb each inevitable tremor, trot out their usually limited programs. Sure they might occasionally spice up their menus to appease their boards, provide comfort food for their patrons, or maybe bring a hip audience in, but sometimes intentions are just intentions. Still it was hard to figure out what the crowd here, which ranged from corporate types to regular Joes, with a few academics, some IT professionals plus the curious on a first date, or dressed to the nines fashionistas expected as they entered Davies. A music director’s “legacy”, solid pieces solidly played, an inspired moment or two to show that the old orchestra leviathan might be alive but hopefully not making waves?

Tilson Thomas assembled an odd, ambitious, and sometimes ungainly program. But was it to please the SFS base, or real intellectuals interested in hearing what a Mozart piano concerto and the only one Schoenberg wrote could could possibly say to each other? Would they just be polite and sit on their hands or would they become inseparable friends? The concerto performances which followed each other — the Mozart closed the first half, and the Schoenberg opened the second half, were so laxly performed that it was hard to see how these two composers could even shake hands. Both were obviously under-rehearsed, though sight read is closer to the mark, and Tilson Thomas, whose beat was vague, seemed barely present in the Mozart. Sure the orchestra was scaled down to eighteenth century proportion but it produced a generic, opaque, and charmless account like an old MGM film which purported to be accurate in terms of period style but had all the wrong costumes and chairs. Movement 1 was barely conversational, movement 2 seemed to evaporate as it was being played, and movement 3 had zero character. This was no way to treat Ax who can be nonpareil in Mozart and it was a huge insult to the composer whose music may seem artless but should never sound as if he was just slumming. Things got even worse in the Schoenberg which didn’t go off the rails because it wasn’t even on them to begin with.Tempos were neither natural or convincing and TilsonThomas added insult to injury by seeming to diss Schoenberg in his open mic comments before the performance by saying that his concerto’s four performed without a break movements were sort of in the style of Brahms and other composers though he was probably just trying to make the music “accessible” to virgin ears. Yet having Ax play a popular song after he played the concerto’s determining twelve note tone-row was TilsonThomas’ lame attempt to prove that Schoenberg just added chromatics to the tune to make it sound more complicated and therefore “meaningful”/profound.This was a lecture/demonstration posing as a performance which made the music sound confused, inept, and trashy, which it certainly is not. Schoenberg has always been seen as a hard sell and his polemical nature didn’t help. But focussing solely on the difficulties of his personal style when he believed that his work was merely a logical continuation of that of the German masters — starting of course with Bach — kept his concerto in the classroom where it doesn’t belong. Schoenberg believed in “history” and progress, and many of us now see science and technology, meaning of course the IT — tech “revolution” — as the latest rungs on that ladder but who knows what we’ve actually accomplished or where we heading to? because as Hoagy Carmichael put it ” a kiss is still a kiss as time goes by ” but this kiss hardly got anyone much beyond first base which is pretty far from heaven.Thank God there’s a performance of the concerto in an all wood hall by the young Hungarian pianist which makes it sound — you guessed it — like music. Schoenberg’s famous Expressionismus moves are there but that’s only part of the story which even the celebrated pianist Mitsuko Uchida gets wrong. Schoenberg’s music is never really discontinuous — it’s just not the continuity — vide Gertrude Stein and Philip Glass — you expected.

Tilson Thomas and company offered a solid but largely unexciting reading of Richard Strauss’ tone poem ” Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche ” which is hardly as episodic as this reading would have you believe. Strauss has always been seen as one of western music’s greatest orchestrators but you don’t have to “italicize” Till’s sections — the orchestra was laid out dramatically across the stage with two drummers upper stage right — to make it come off. Yet that didn’t stop Tilson Thomas from shoving the string dominated conclusion much faster than it needed to go which robbed the ending of its ironic grandeur. Tempo is structure as one of the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler’s friends observed, and there’s a perfectly paced live performance of “Till ” with Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic

Tilson Thomas looked to be in his element in his reading of Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture # 3 “, which was, despite a too slow opening tempo and a willfully sounding accelerando, grand
and utterly spacious,Tilson Thomas’ beat steady and clearly articulated from start to finish. He looked like a north German Kapellmeister or that famous silhouette of Mahler precisely beating time which isn’t a put down because Tilson Thomas and his band got it right here — Beethoven noble, loud, and utterly clear.


12-27.i.18 C 2018 MICHAEL MCDONAGH

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