Davies Hall, San Francisco
March 9, 2018
San Francisco Symphony
Edward Gardner, conductor
Simon Trpčeski, piano
Tippett – Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage (1952)
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue (1924/26)
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances, Opus 45 (1940)
Though Michael Tilson Thomas doesn’t step away from our podium officially until the summer of 2020, his recently announced departure ensures every guest conducting week at the San Francisco Symphony between now and then amounts to a job interview for the Music Directorship. English conductor Edward Gardner, current Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway and a frequent recording artist for Chandos with British orchestras, surely had this possibility in mind for his impressive debut program here last week: a shrewdly chosen British signature piece; a bow to MTT’s New York Broadway roots with Gershwin, and Rachmaninoff’s final blockbuster, written in America. He brought the house down.
Gardner is 44, lithe, prematurely grey, Cambridge educated and as lively and well-spoken with a microphone as he is choreographic with a baton, which he wields with energy and complements with a parade-ground cueing arm. Speaking to an audience plays into our well-established SF tradition, although I’ve run into considerable muttered dowager dread of it over the years: “Uh-oh, here comes Tilson Thomas with a microphone!” MTT’s verbal virtuosity is well-known, more or less tolerated and, one supposes, considered a necessary tool of the trade here after twenty-five years. Gardner spoke a bit in advance of the Tippett Ritual Dances and proved very much at ease with our American sort of give and take.
Concert dress and appearance these days can be baffling to pre-millennials, so I shall only report Gardner arrived onstage handsome and safely hip in what seemed to be a tuxedo jacket worn over a black motorcycle t-shirt. (Our piano soloist would eventually appear in a similarly baffling outfit featuring a striped bow-tie.) My seat-mate, Joyce, in no way troubled, leaned over at one point and whispered lustfully. “He’s got shaky hair. Gotta have shaky hair!” (Out of the mouths of babes, so to speak. So I have to assume the overall effect worked!)
Michael Tippett was something of an odd duck composer, a political and psychological tumbleweed who could veer between extremes and compose music with ideas in mind first and the notes only coming much later. He was prone to additive rhythms, which in profusion can make music hard to follow, and given to baffling prolixity in his later works. But the Ritual Dances from Tippett’s first opera, The Midsummer Marriage, are warm and sonorous. Encountering Tippett is like trying to listen to a mistuned radio station featuring Stravinsky, while another station adjacent keeps intruding with Handel, Dowland, Debussy and Hindemith. There are trumpets to be heard everywhere, sounding vaguely imperial, plus burbling woodwind proclamations and reams of sonorous string counterpoint. It’s a mix that seems to contain all musical history but comes across with the simplicity of slightly scattered movie music.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue amounts to a different sort of stress-test for non-American performers. Can one be snap-fingered enough, loose enough? The British “get” Gershwin and always have. They danced to American music during the Second World War. British orchestras are brassy, like ours. But continental Europe has tended to be stiff and earnest with it. So it amused me no end to observe our Macedonian and very European-seeming soloist, Simon Trpčeski, vie with Edward Gardner to demonstrate who could be the jazziest and coolest American of them all. In the process, they both pulled out the stops beautifully. Gardner had our winds snarking as though they should be arrested for sex in public, and Trpčeski proved a wonderful rubber-faced mime. When the music collapsed to the bottom of the keyboard, he collapsed with it! Gardner did not hesitate to blare and bray at the climaxes, which is essential in Gershwin. The orchestra let loose with perfect abandon.
That’s rather different from the tight tension required of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. As Joyce pointed out at the end of the first movement, the music always “lands in a dark place.” Quite so. Rachmaninoff is the first composer I think of who is nearly nearly always in a minor key, and who even expresses triumph that way. The Symphonic Dances represent Rachmaninoff’s final accommodation with modernism, but leave plenty of room for his traditional melodic nostalgia. Edward Gardner was whiplash powerful where it mattered and exhibited just the right amount of give and take throughout.
This debut was immensely successful. One doesn’t know in which direction the search committee is aiming, of course. But I, for one, would not mind an English Music Director who could bring us the Elgar and Vaughan Williams and Walton which Michael Tilson Thomas never did. It has always baffled this critic that MTT spent seven years at the head of the London Symphony Orchestra–and almost never performs English music. The search is on. In a year or two San Francisco will have its new conductor. Then we critics can set to work with new enthusiasms and new complaints!