MTT, James Ehnes, and the San Francisco Symphony open the season with Americans: Ives, Barber, Antheil, and Gershwin

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Charles Ives

Charles Ives

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, September 6, 2013

Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.
James Ehnes, violin
Robin Sutherland, piano
Mark Inouye, trumpet

Ives, orch. Brant – The Alcotts, from a Concord Symphony (1920/1994)
Barber – Violin Concerto, Opus 14 (1940)
Antheil – A Jazz Symphony (1925)
Gershwin – An American in Paris (1928)

Last Friday evening dusked warm and sensuous—a rarity in this city. And at the San Francisco Symphony: one of those electric occasions to match, where everything comes together with inspiration, and the audience goes away feeling alive and happy. I don’t think I have ever seen Michael Tilson Thomas so rested and intuitively joyous at the podium—American music is his specialty—and nobody since Bernstein does it so well. Thomas has a reputation for programming what amounts to narrated musical lesson-plans. Let him grab a microphone, and the dowagers in the audience get nervous. His obscure Beethoven and Schubert discoveries are not always worth the trouble he lavishes on them. But when it comes to 20th Century Americana, there is no better guide to the sparks of life which make us who we are as a nation. The four works chosen for this program simply jumped off the stage with beauty and originality—and that special snappy something which tells us that we are Americans.

Despite all the presumed wildness in his music, Charles Ives was a counterfeit terrorist, never stooping to vulgarity or ugliness. Indeed, both Ives and Barber rebelled happily from within the establishment, Brooks Brothers men changing the world with pin stripes and fountain pens. I thought of this, hearing Henry Brant’s apt orchestration of The Alcotts from Ives’ Concord Sonata. At moments it sounded as plummy as Brahms, despite the absence of bar lines in the score and the inclusion of bizarre metric signatures (one of them reading “four and a half-four”!) This movement represents Ives’ tipping of his hat towards the Alcott family and their Mendelssohnian musicales. So we hear a lot of the opening motif from the Beethoven Fifth, which they used to play on the piano, four hands, and a good bit of the sonic chaos that must surely have pervaded the Alcott household. But underneath, as always with Ives, lies a gentle reverent sentiment, searching, un-neurotic and simple as a cow looking over a fence.

The perfect segue for this opener was marked by the appearance on stage of James Ehnes to perform the Barber Violin Concerto. Ehnes is a tall, benevolent fellow, upright and proper in classic white tie and tails. He looks for all the world like the nice young man who has arrived to escort your daughter to the ball. And what a romantic evening he makes happen! Ehnes has one remarkable quality as a violinist—-no matter how loudly he plays, he doesn’t scrape. There is not a single trace of that passionate roughness we come to expect from violinists, especially Russian ones. But of quiet passion there is plenty—I found his pure and simple approach very moving. And the sheer perfection of Ehnes’ intonation, matched to unbelievable accuracy and speed in the finale, simply brought the audience to its feet screaming! The good spirits were infectious throughout. Just before the last movement, a man sitting above the brass decided to head for the exit, taking a remarkably long time to do so. MTT followed him with his eyes and arms suspended in upbeat anticipation. As the miscreant opened the exit door, he was cued out with a wild shipboard wave from MTT and waves of laughter from the audience.

After intermission it was stink-Bomb-throwing time! Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, composed by the bad boy of music, turned out to be as harmless as Poulenc and as weird as Satie. Like the latter’s Relâche, it melds seemingly impossible elements. No typewriters, but a lot of Le Sacre mixed in with Broadway oompah, a remarkably snarky and wicked trumpet played by Mark Inouye and some jazzy piano riffs from Robin Sutherland at one of three pianos. The audience loved the sheer energy and quirky juxtapositions—a real discovery.

But they didn’t love it more than the Gershwin which followed! Antheil supposed, mistakenly, that his pieces were better than Gershwin’s, because the latter stooped to composing “sweet” Jazz. This is the natural instinct of a rebel speaking. But it is the very sweetness which makes An American in Paris so wonderful. In any case the piece is not that sweet, or if it is, it is fortunate, like sex, to be both dirty and sweet at the same time. Much depends in Gershwin on how you capture this as a performer. The audience here was simply in awe of Inouye’s trumpet playing—it was pure Broadway and absolutely filthy—and when you are speaking of music from the 1920s, that’s how it should be! Michael Tilson Thomas, meanwhile, might as well have been at a disco. This music speaks to him like no other, and he alternated between dancing with it and using his baton like a baseball bat cueing for the bleachers. When he is really engaged, MTT’s body turns to rubber and he gives elbow downbeats with his hands batting symmetrically in front of his face, like a cat playing with a dangling toy. He went crazy with this…The performance, itself, was simply the best I have ever heard. Better than MTT’s 2004 recording. Better even than Bernstein, though that is a hard one—in any case almost better than anyone could dare expect.

As the patrons filed out into the warm night, I heard fewer conversations than usual mired in parking ticket banalities, and more a dreamy sense among couples in the audience that, who knows…? The evening might not be over!

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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