19 January 2009

not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Michael Tilson Thomas opened last Thursday’s San Francisco Symphony concert with one of his own pieces, Street Songs. This is an unfortunate title, for me at least, because its echo of the play/movie/opera title Street Scene led me to expect one of those well-meaning but dreary attempts as in the 1930s to make American music sound like “real” people: you know, “We're Americans! Let’s not sound like Europeans – let’s sound like European immigrants!” It’s actually a piece for brass that is like walking through deep canyons; there are great blocks of sound, but they’re not building blocks. I enjoyed it moment by moment, but there were too many moments (it was about twenty minutes long, nearly as long as the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 5 with which Tilson Thomas and Garrick Ohlsson then dazzled us, the slow movement of which was particularly beautiful).

But it was the second half of the program, the Tchaikovsky 5, that helped me figure out what has been bothering me for a while about Tilson Thomas’s conducting the past few seasons. He goes for a certain monumental quality, and while each phrase unfolds with stately and sensuous luxuriance, and has an almost physical volume of sound, certain other qualities – frenzy, fleetness, grotesquerie, and the more diabolical ironies – are lost or crushed. (This may be why some are consistently dissatisfied with his Berlioz and Prokofiev. I think this is what bothered me about his last Mahler 7.)

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing: although lots of people are impressed by sheer loudness, that’s not quite what (or all that) he’s doing; he successfully avoids the bombastic and produces sounds that are genuinely grand and noble, and it’s too obvious to point out that grandeur and nobility do not perhaps arise naturally in contemporary American culture. No wonder audiences gratefully give him ovations for this achievement. (His Berlioz may not explain to you why that great composer was considered a mad man who wrote unplayable music, but it will consistently remind you that Berlioz was also an artist who adored Gluck.) But I can’t help feeling that there’s a certain petrifaction to some of the performances. While being grateful for monuments, we should also notice, remember, and enjoy the lichen, the cracks, the worn stones, the insects fluttering by.


Civic Center said...

Nicely written. I think MTT has gotten a little bored after so many seasons in San Francisco, and who can blame him? Unless he's featuring modern, recently written pieces, at which he and the San Francisco Symphony excel, I tend to avoid his concerts these days. I prefer those led by guest conductors, though there are major exceptions like the recent Mahler "Das Lied von Erde" and Eighth Symphony performances.

Whatever he's doing, however, the orchestra itself has never sounded better to my ears in the 30+ years I've been going to their concerts.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

If he's bored as the artistic administrator and chief conductor of a major American orchestra, what hope is there for any of us in any of our jobs?

My little theory was that maybe this tendency had something to do with getting older. And I'm not saying it's not a valid approach. Just maybe not always?

John Marcher said...

I missed these performances, but I had similar thoughts while attending the Brahms/ Berg/ Copland performance a couple of weeks back while they were performing the Brahms symphony in the second half.

The audience loved it, but I was frankly at a loss at to why. The Berg on the other hand, was captivating and the Copland "Our Town" music was a delight to my ears and I don't even like Copland.

At least this year has much more interesting programming than the past few seasons have offered.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I missed that program -- the Berg looked interesting, as is Berg's wont, but I didn't feel like another run-through of the Brahms and frankly I've found Copland less interesting lately (my thing, not his). It was actually at the Brahms 4 a couple of seasons ago that I first noticed the tendency I wrote about in this entry, though.

The programming is interesting this season -- we have the Ligeti Requiem coming up, and Gubaidulina, and then the Berg/Schubert festival and Iolanthe at the end of the season.