MTT Conducts Johann Strauss Jr., Richard Strauss, Charles Ives, Lukas Foss, and György Ligeti

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Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, September 28, 2014

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting

San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Ragnar Bohlin, director

Foss – “…then the rocks on the mountains began to shout” Charles Ives (1978)
Ives – Three Places in New England (1914)
J. Strauss, Jr. – By the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Opus 314 (1867)
Ligeti – Lux Aeterna (1966)
R. Strauss – Also Sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 (1896)

It would be hard to peg with certainty the guiding concept in Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent choral program for the San Francisco Symphony. As so often with MTT, the selections appear a sophisticated grab bag. But intuition suggests the topic of nature and the metaphysics which spring from appreciating it. Thomas’ introductory remarks for each piece certainly leaned in this direction. Mounting the podium, he reached for his mike and held it like a weapon overhead. This can often result in a verbal concert and the disapproval of old ladies in the audience. But the nature of the music was such that his remarks were appreciated and not too long.

I was eager at first mostly to hear Three Places in New England, which MTT recorded at the beginning of his career with the Boston Symphony—still a wonderful reading of the piece. But as the concert began, I became aware of a luminous, contemplative quality in Thomas’ conducting that I do not often recall hearing before. The quieter moments of the evening would turn out to be breathtakingly so. Diaphanous pianissimi are not normally the strong suit of this conductor. But perhaps now, turning seventy, Michael Tilson Thomas is gearing up for elder-baton sainthood, with contemplation to match!

I am glad Lukas Foss saved us the trouble of trying to explain his piece. The SFS program notes include a quote from the composer indicating he has no idea why rocks “shout”! But the music itself is a gripping “Djinns-like” ratcheting game of a cappella syllable-play, wordless except for exclamations like “Ha Ha” and “Sing Sing.” A single five note chord is reworked in many ostinato layers until there is sort of choral explosion. The piece was conducted in golden glowing light and made a fine effect. MTT conducted without baton, but you could tell he was having an up-afternoon: when things go well, MTT whips from side to side as though wielding a scythe. It was a good harvest.

Just as Foss’  “..then the rocks on the mountains began to shout” is not really about rocks, so too, Three Places in New England is only in a limited sense about statues, military camps and rivers. Ives’ music covers a remarkable emotional range. He can be vivid in the here and now like Shostakovich or Respighi, yet as inward looking as Elgar. His special trick is to be both at the same time. In the St. Gaudens movement, for instance, nothing is more “real” than the marching of soldiers uphill, where they break step and fall behind. Yet this is no march movement. It is an evocation.You notice this the most in “Putnam’s Camp,” where the brass bands are at once equally present and ghostly. Hearing this music, you always sense you are in the dark alone and at a distance, swimming in your own thoughts, as glimmers of light and echoes of music and voices reach you through the distortions of the night. And nothing can be more inward or contemplative than “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” The river’s texture is as detailed as Monet’s sunlit and still water lilies—yet Ives’ Housatonic is utterly veiled, nocturnal, moonlit, and full of movement. Barely visible waters flow heavily past with the indifference of fate, evoking historical memory. The waters roil and burble, shedding flecks of light like sparks. But the power is out of our hands, and it is all we can do to understand and accept….Significantly, the music ends with its own continuation as a river must. The performance was stunningly, kaleidoscopically beautiful.

And so it came time for the evening’s oddity, the Strauss waltz. It served to leaven the proceedings, even if Thomas conducted a bit earnestly. The trick is to be romantic and light! And yet I had to laugh: as carefully as an American orchestra tries to get the hesitations right between the second and third beats of a Viennese Waltz, the Vienna Philharmonic always manages to make it sound more intuitive and effortless. Even Fritz Reiner, who recorded it decades ago, had trouble eliciting anything but a heavy Blue Danube from the Chicago Symphony. But MTT had a good time delaying the repeats and toward the end faced the audience with upraised arm and and an eye-twinkle, before giving a downbeat for the last round.

Ligeti’s 1966 Lux Aeterna is by now a classic. It takes its eeriness from the final movement of Holst’s The Planets and runs with it to the virtual limit of possibility. Ragnar Bohlin conducted, achieving remarkable cathedral sonorities with tiny sculpted signals that became ever more fascinating, as the piece subdivided and soared among the spheres. He stood tall and nearly motionless under a golden light, each finger movement a slow evocation. The music contains events and is not strictly about texture, but the overall effect is of magical significance coming seemingly from nothing. Like the Foss piece, words are used mostly as syllables. I counted at one point twenty-eight slow beats between the first and last syllables of the word “aeterna.” The music is perfect for its length, eternal without being interminable.

And now the piece de resistance, Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. As the portentous opening growled and shook effectively on the Ruffati organ, I was gratified to hear the brass and timpani manage a seamless set of self-announcements, while maintaining perfect balance from top to bottom, harder to do than you might think. (A girlfriend and I once went through about twenty recorded openings of the piece. Almost all of them dropped the ball somewhere, leaving thin spots at different places in the texture or losing tension, or not holding a chord long enough—yes, even Solti and Karajan!)  But MTT got it right this time in the grand opening. And what astonished me is how much lyrical depth he found in the piece. This was a thoughtful, golden textured reading, and the audience loved it, as did I. But I’m always struck by a disjunct in the piece. You have the big and gleaming opening, worthy of Nietzsche. Then suddenly you are choking on Sachertorte with Schlagsahne in a coffee house. The sweetness I find too sickening to follow immediately what came before. It is at this moment that I remember Peter Ustinov’s comment about Richard Strauss. “I knew I wouldn’t like his wallpaper!”

But I did like the concert.

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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