The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor
Schubert – Entr’acte 1 (Allegro molto moderato), from Incidental Music for Rosamunde, D.797 (1823)
R. Strauss – Four Last Songs (1948),
Elza van den Heever, soprano
R. Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40 (1898)
Alexander Barantschik, violin
Michael Tilson Thomas was looking hard for insight in Schubert last Saturday. He found it in words, if not in the music. Indeed, you might say he chose the first Entr’acte from Rosamunde for an illustration of his point. As a young man, Thomas managed to alienate the Boston Symphony for decades by talking too much, and the tendency to lecture and otherwise condescend to his audiences from the podium still remains. This time, though, the music happened to be rather forgettable, and Thomas’ remarks about it more interesting. The Entr’acte seems to be part of a dry run for Schubert’s “Unfinished,” and MTT correctly pointed out that its harmony is headed in the direction of Mendelssohn and Schumann.
There is a Mendelssohnian march section to be found in the piece, a lot of heavy B-minor octaves, a not very interesting counter-melody, and generally a lot of bluster. It deserves its anonymity. But one notices, even so, that Schubert is headed in new chromatic directions, with long tensely sustained phrases, just as in the B-minor Symphony. Hearing these harmonic explorations, I remain doubly convinced that the “Unfinished” is in fact a later work than the “Great” C-Major, No.9, whose short declarative phrases and simple harmonies seem, by comparison, born of Mozart’s time. There used to be a small controversy surrounding this matter, but it appears to have evaporated without a firm resolution.
The remainder of Saturday’s concert was devoted to two Richard Strauss staples, the autumnal Four Last Songs, sung by Elza van den Heever, and the autobiographical symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben. Each performance served to illustrate the perils of approaching Strauss with an extroverted American sensibility.
Richard Strauss? “I knew I wouldn’t like his wallpaper!”
An old-fashioned remark by Peter Ustinov — and a pot-shot at bourgeois notions of contentment — yet issues of good and bad taste still surround the flamboyance of Strauss’s compositions and affect both the evolution of his reputation and how his music is performed. In the United States, most orchestras, including the San Francisco Symphony, have tended to embrace an extroverted,”Hollywood,” pictorial Strauss, as though he were another Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov or Max Steiner. The Philadelphia Orchestra, and its recordings under Ormandy, was typical of the approach. This has been the path of least resistance and the one most consonant with American national traits. On the continent, though, an influential vocal scene bestows upon this composer a more shaded, autumnal assessment, reflective of his art songs and later operas, and European orchestras often seem more inclined to search out hidden depths in his music.
The literary grandiosity of a young man composing pretentious orchestral works is compounded, in Strauss’ case, by a new kind of unashamed, cinematically expressed sensuality. This is not mythological eroticism, like Wagner’s — -dangerous, creepy, obsessive — nor even knowing and ironic, like the flirtations in Mozart. Indeed, audiences have always appreciated priapically obsessed composers — the more outré or even twisted the better. Strauss’ music, however, often takes a different tack. It appears to reflect contentedly upon the uncontroversial permitted sensual experiences of daily life, and to elevate their banality.
Or not, as some might say….It is one of the paradoxes of symphonic music that a composer may undertake murder, mayhem and catastrophe without ever being accused of excess, yet let him depict a baby burbling in its bathwater or a husband making love to his own wife, instead of someone else’s, and the listener begins to squirm at the notion of “too much information.” Catastrophe permits voyeurs. We call them news reporters. Contentment does not. We call them peeping Toms. Strauss, you might say, films contentment in 3D. Sometimes we wonder if he should.
It is perhaps a curse for Strauss, as it was for Mendelssohn, that he lived too normal and too happy a life. But maybe this also explains why we can find such depths in the later-life reflections of the man, surveying the ruins of the civilization he loved. With a backward glance, we see it is not only the “Traumerei” interlude from Intermezzo, nor Metamorphosen, nor the sentiments expressed in the Four Last Songs that bespeak a mature, civilized person reflecting upon what life has wrought. There are also moments in Aus Italien, Zarathustra or Ein Heldenleben which tell us the same sensibility is at work, indeed was always there in the younger man. But the performer must know where to look.
Elza van den Heever’s performance of the Strauss Four Last Songs was strangely bifurcated in this regard. She has recently undertaken soprano roles, after originally training as a mezzo-soprano, and it wasn’t clear from this performance that the transition has been a happy one. Her mezzo range is now nearly inaudible, as though the violas were missing in her voice, and MTT’s clumpy orchestral opening completely swamped her. Although he quickly readjusted dynamics, and quieter moments revealed some of Strauss’ intended confidentiality, van den Heever tended to burst upward operatically the moment the music grew in volume, displaying voice rather than meaning and destroying the fluidity of phrase. Punching out a song this way elicits inappropriate applause, and the audience’s repeated interruptions curtailed what little of Strauss’ reminiscent dreamscape had managed to reveal itself. These aren’t arias, but you wouldn’t have known it.
Ein Heldenleben fared better than this and was received heartily, but one could not help noticing that it sounded very “American” and a little obvious in MTT’s hands. One of the interesting features in Davies hall is the large number of seats surrounding the orchestra, and I have found that much can be learned there by looking into a conductor’s face. Whenever there is an opportunity for bluster from the trumpets or an irreverent streety edge to be found in a woodwind line, Michael Tilson Thomas seems galvanized. The chaotic bustle of music brings out the best in him. But not every romantic work is by Prokofiev or best approached as a bumptious Mahlerian slice of life. Especially German music. Even Strauss, with his huge orchestrations.
The key to Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Schmidt, even Schoenberg, I find…is a luminous river of string sound, representing the flow of life and the life of the piece. Other instrumental events poke through the flow, but always seem of it, like glints of gold in a Rembrandt. It is this elusiveness which makes for successful nostalgia and the satisfaction of the listener’s artistic experience. We take more nourishment from beauty when it escapes us, after all, and in German music what is most beautiful often seems but a hint. This is why ebb and flow matters so much to German music lovers. But look into Michael Tilson Thomas’ eyes during these string-dovetailing moments — and you see nothing. It explains a lot.
The very opening of Ein Heldenleben is a case in point. Listen to the Vienna Philharmonic begin the piece and you hear a sort of velvet roar, like an ocean liner’s departing steam-whistle heard from a few hundred yards away. A beginning to Strauss’ life voyage? Surely deliberate? But listen to the San Francisco Symphony under MTT and you hear a loud clunk, like elevator machinery starting up in the basement. It seems the wrong kind of journey.
Ein Heldenleben is not without its structural problems, of course. One could argue that the section devoted to Strauss’ wife Pauline, a seven-minute-long violin cadenza, occurs too early to sum-up anything — which is what cadenzas are good at–and is in any case too long. Alexander Barantschik did a nice job with it, and the rest of the piece proceeded with virtuoso work on the bassoons and some fine growling tubas, but individual moments could not substitute for the missing glow and sense of reminiscence, and that is the conductor’s fault, not the orchestra’s. Michael Tilson Thomas is an immensely gifted conductor. But when he conducts Strauss, I’m tempted to say, like Peter Ustinov, “I don’t like the wallpaper.”