Davies Hall, San Francisco
March 23, 2015
The London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting
Yuja Wang, piano
Colin Matthews – Hidden Variables
Gershwin – Concerto in F
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47
If you feel pursued by good luck, do we call it paranoia? This is the question I must answer lately, since it seems the London Symphony has chased me down in San Francisco—to my great delight!
Just a month ago, I had the good fortune of hearing Sir Mark Elder lead the orchestra in a solid Pathétique at the Barbican. By the time my visit was over, I had experienced the Berlin Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, the Philharmonia and the London Philharmonic, as well. What puzzled throughout all this listening was the difficulty of telling the orchestras apart in London’s Barbican and Festival Hall, clinical modern venues with limited reverberation and bass. Rehearsing at Festival Hall, Sir Simon Rattle once famously commented, “destroys the will to live.” And the Barbican, in a fit of good will, he termed “serviceable,” which is pretty much how all the orchestras there sounded. This has been an old story. But lately there is hope on the horizon.
So it is a delight to encounter the LSO again here in San Francisco, in a celebratory mood, showing off its rich colors in a good hall. I’ve never witnessed happier faces onstage or in the audience. The orchestra has much to celebrate. It has just signed Sir Simon Rattle as incoming Music Director, the best possible feather in its cap. Wheels are being set in motion to build a new concert hall for the orchestra. And it is on tour with Michael Tilson Thomas, its former Music Director, who is also enjoying a 70th birthday season with his home orchestra in San Francisco. Good fellowship in the hall was the order of the day and nearly palpable.
The London Symphony is a legendary orchestra, not just in England, where it often stands first in pride of place, but in the United States. Anyone over forty recalls record bins filled with Andre Previn conducting the LSO in Gershwin and Shostakovich. And Dorati’s Brahms Hungarian Dances LP from 1962 was ubiquitous stateside and never surpassed. So it makes sense that the orchestra should bring this repertory on tour to America, the Brahms G minor dance as an encore. I don’t think I’ve heard these pieces done better.
Davies Hall, for a modern venue, reveals an extremely rich bass. And its acoustic is a good measure of string sonority. Davies isn’t Carnegie Hall, but it shows up differences in orchestras. The immediate surprise at this concert was how rich and velvety the strings of the London Symphony sounded, more like the Berlin Philharmonic’s than one would ever suppose at home. And as the evening progressed, the orchestra’s individual choirs dazzled with their virtuosity and beauty of tone.
Colin Matthews Hidden Variables is a perfect modern tour piece, joyous, kaleidoscopic, sonorous and just unpredictable enough to be fun as a concert opener. It sounds like an orchestra spinning out of control. And it is perfectly named. Just when you think one thing is going to happen, it is subverted by its opposite and synthesized into something new. One moment the whole orchestra flutter-tongues like Bruckner gone crazy. The next, fierce marches and golden brass fanfares take over, attacked by whips and wooden blocks. Bass drums “walk” around like plucked instruments. The piano stalks them. Things shudder and quiver deeply. But it all sounds euphonious and sweeping. Each moment is appealing. Great chords fly around. And behind them something else always sneaks in. A devilishly clever work.
The audience loved it. With each new piece of this sort listeners breathe a sigh of relief, of course, about contemporary music. Concertgoers still recall decades of dodecaphonic blackmail they could not escape.
If the London Symphony dazzled us with its brilliance and virtuosity, nothing quite prepared the audience for Yuja Wang’s entrance stage left, sinuous, sensuous and laminated into a clingy chartreuse dress as perfect as a sculptor’s mold! The audience gasped. I would swear the dress was transparent in places and had plastic windows, but I am a mere male and was roundly criticized by my friend Joyce for describing it to her as “lime yellow,” so I may not be the most informed judge. “Chartreuse!,” she hissed. “Chartreuse!” But it certainly captured everyone’s attention.
And so, too, did the Gershwin. The Concerto is really a musical cocktail party—here hosted by the most beautiful girl in the room. But it was Yuja Wang’s astonishing catlike virtuosity which won everyone over. Wang can sometimes be wayward and a bit showy, but no pianist alive can do runs the way she does, with feathers for fingers. Her performance alternated between a remarkable tensile strength and this eerie ability to play notes without seeming to touch them. It was a happy performance. The second desk cellist couldn’t stop beaming. The principal trumpet made sounds that would get you ejected from Bourbon Street for misbehavior. And Michael Tilson Thomas jumped and emoted and embraced the sound as happily as Leonard Bernstein, the first time I have seen him levitate like his mentor.
At the conclusion of the concerto, after the LSO brass flattened us to the wall with remarkable power, Yuja Wang performed MTT’s clever piano riff “You come here often?” The piece is a mood-clone of “Masque” from Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety and every bit as good. It was a sign of the times that Wang performed it from a tablet perched on the piano, batting at it with her finger instead of turning pages. It ends with a high speed crescendo. The audience was dumbstruck. Wang didn’t miss a single note the entire evening.
Once again, as the Shostakovich began, I was struck by the weight of the London Symphony strings. This was a powerful and sensuous performance, yet deeply quiet where needed, with the best creeping first movement coda I’ve ever heard, all spider filigree, eerie slither and spun silk brass cocoon. The scherzo was sarcastic.The slow movement even managed to exude a certain eroticism, so well sustained, smooth and rich were the string tuttis. And the Finale hit the perfect tempo for Shostakovich’s sense of mock triumph and irony, ending just slightly more slowly than it began, with incredible power. Davies Hall is supposedly earthquake-proof. I begin to doubt it! The hall shook.
When the screams died down, MTT and the orchestra launched into the Brahms Hungarian Dance No.1, as if it were the LSO of yesteryear led by Antal Dorati. Thomas conducted swinging from side to side with his telltale scything motion, as if the harvest depended on him. Indeed, he was so galvanized, I begin to think the London Symphony was not the only story of the evening.
Michael Tilson Thomas seems to be reaching the age of serenity and gravitas. At times he presides. At other times, such as on this occasion, he throws himself into the music as if he were twenty-five again. But his interpretations seem to be deepening. And the long held criticism that he doesn’t get orchestras to play quietly enough is no longer valid.
Meanwhile, in this critic’s mind it is all good that the LSO seemed to follow me home to San Francisco. I wish it well. Britain’s greatest orchestra can stalk me anytime!