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.