Music / The Berkshire Review in San Francisco

MTT leads the San Francisco Symphony in Harrison, Copland and Tchaikovsky

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Lou Harrison
Lou Harrison

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
September 25, 2010
Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor

Harrison – A Parade (1995)
Copland – Quiet City (1939), Russ de Luna, English Horn, Mark Inouye, Trumpet
Copland – Organ Symphony (1924), Paul Jacobs, Organ
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36 (1877)

Several solid hits and a bit of a bunt. That’s how it seemed last Saturday at the San Francisco Symphony.  Returning from a recent European tour, Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra set before the Davies audience three American works that played brilliantly to his strengths and temperament, and a performance of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony which brought the house down, but seemed a touch undetailed.

The evening opened with Lou Harrison’s A Parade, which was originally commissioned in 1995 to celebrate the beginning of MTT’s Music Directorship. This is a fine, approachable, occasional piece in the traditional “festival prelude” manner, and very much worth its revival. It is written in simple A B A form and poses no thorny difficulties for the listener. There is a “misterioso” trio at its heart, similar to the quieter parts of Respighi’s Church Windows, and the work concludes with a sudden jolt of impishness.

The mention of Harrison’s name as a Pacific Coast composer usually conjures up notions of “Asian influence” and “exotic percussion,” but anyone expecting this music to wallow in the pseudo-tribal barbarisms of Tan Dun would be disappointed. And Ives lovers may be surprised to learn that Harrison’s approach to parades doesn’t include simultaneously-heard conflicting band-themes, or hints of real-world marching chaos.

Indeed, if one were to guess who had composed A Parade, I might suggest Ned Rorem, whose symphonic works reveal the same easy “open sky American accent” as pieces by Roy Harris, but take percussion-writing, via French influence, to new levels of sonority and refinement. A remarkable assemblage of Far Eastern and South Seas percussion instruments is to be found in this short work, yet their use is always contemporary, American in feeling and integrated with the rest of the orchestral texture. Harrison is mercifully free of atavistic or Brechtian impulses — and as a result his music never turns into a drum-banging American version of Carl Orff. Good thing!

Indeed, no matter how loud or active the bells and drums, this is a smooth, gleaming, string-based piece which charms through beauty and good humor. There is a lesson in that. Harrison knew how to write loud music that surrounds the listener, without blaring at him as though over a public address system. Copland and Shostakovich never quite learned how to do this, and as a result, many of their more portentous moments elicit listener fatigue.

Depictions of passion and excitement are seldom especially hard for composers, I would imagine, always assuming a melodic gift. Those moods call attention to themselves. The real curse of classical composition must surely be how to depict stasis or boredom…without being static or boring. Copland’s Quiet CIty, for trumpet, English horn and strings is one of the few mood pieces which seems to manage the trick.

Quiet City is a bit like John Cheever’s short story,”The Enormous Radio,” where a seemingly innocent radio console, instead of playing music or drama, picks up the angry conversations and sordid disputes of neighbors in a New York apartment building. The trumpeter here is meant to express the conflicting inner thoughts of several different people at night — all as part of a long defunct theater piece — and they are not necessarily meant to be nostalgic, pleasant thoughts.

Indeed, there is an edge of anxiety to be heard in the opening trumpet calls, and Mark Inouye captured it well, nicely dovetailed by Russ de Luna’s replies on the English horn. Over the years, though, Quiet City has evolved away from the characters in its forgotten play and become a simpler yearning evocation of New York and its moods.

Hearing it now, we hardly care whether it is night in the city, or simply a hot dusty Sunday at high noon, with newspapers lying in the gutter. Whichever way, it is still New York City, and there is heard the loneliness of a single trumpet voice, trying and ever failing to cut through its vast indifference.

Copland’s Organ Symphony, which followed on the program, owes such popularity as it has largely to its very syncopated and very “New York” second movement, which foreshadows the rhythmic power of the mature ballets and the film score “Walk On The Wild Side.” In other respects, the piece, well constructed though it may be, is at times more like anodyne Stravinsky than the Copland we know, with even a bit of Korngold  thrown in, and ultimately seems to be heading for Shostakovich, which is about where Copland eventually will end up. But the composer is not yet fully himself in this work.

Last week’s performance was being recorded, so I am happy to report that Paul Jacobs perfectly captured the creepy “toys in the attic” minimalism of the first movement organ part, and indeed was stellar throughout. The boisterous second movement sounded well, and the finale, once it made up its mind to be Copland/Shostakovich, grew in power and clarity, especially when compared to the Simon Preston/Leonard Slatkin performance I know. Say what one will, nobody “gets” American music better than Michael Tilson Thomas. The early “proletarian march” in the finale had the feel of the real thing, and I came away thinking this will be the recording to have.

The organ is a problematic instrument in a concert hall, I find. It can give soft support and real power to an orchestra from below, but an organ playing loudly in a symphonic hall desperately needs more reverberation than is usually available. Declamatory chords immediately become impossibly overbearing, harsh, and claustrophobic. Sonorities fail to “roll” along towards one, they way they do in a cathedral with a longer reverberation time.

And so, I must report that the Copland Organ Symphony sounded fairly unpleasant as it concluded, albeit effectively. Copland’s music tends to blare in general, but when you have a full organ attacking you in too small a space and the piece itself seems to have a problem finding its ending, you are going to have some clotted moments. “Summation-itis,” it would appear, is the nearly universal curse of a young composer trying to bring off a Finale. In this instance, add “Sinus Headache”!

The evening concluded with Mr. Thomas leading, or better said, nudging along a performance of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony that seemed to come out of some orchestral generic memory, more than from his immediate urgings. There wasn’t much detail to it, but the basic pace was fairly swift in the complicated first movement,and also throughout, so nothing was really wrong. A good performance of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony chases you down the street and leaves you breathless. That’s the essence of the piece. This one was coming after me, but I could get away from it!  Still, it was closer to the swift Pierre Monteux readings of yesteryear than one normally hears these days, and I was grateful for that. It could have been heavy and overwrought, in the late Bernstein manner.

There exists in San Francisco an old black Vaudevillian singer in a yellow suit, top hat and cane, who stands in front of Saks Fifth Avenue every day, belting out the trailing end of Cole Porter lyrics to any pretty girl walking by. He has long since given up singing complete phrases, which tend to get lost in the traffic noise, so you only hear him croon out a word or two from the beginning or end of something as you go by. It is a curiously effective form of data suppression. MTT’s performance of the Tchaikovsky was like that. He seemed so relaxed, he hardly bothered to beat time. A great compliment to the orchestra, of course, conducting only a partial phrase here or there — but inner moments could have been more intensely worked out. Vaudeville? Well, there was no top hat and cane….Tour fatigue? Perhaps.

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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, David Atherton, 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 Bach biographer Phillip 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, Bax, Walton and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s. He continues today as an advocate for these and other great 19th and 20th century symphonic composers, such as D'Indy, Magnard, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now retired and living in California, Steven Kruger regularly attends The San Francisco Symphony and reports upon those and other Davies Hall symphonic events. Since 2011, he has written program notes on a continuing basis for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CD, "Music for a Time of War," and has become a regular reviewer for Fanfare.

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