San Francisco Symphony: MTT and Yo-Yo Ma in Hindemith’s Cello Concerto, with Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 and Brahms’ First Symphony

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Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting
Yo-Yo Ma, violoncello

Beethoven – Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a (1806)
Hindemith – Cello Concerto (1940)
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68 (1876)

One happy consequence of San Francisco’s famously late summers is the continuing presence of European visitors well into the fall concert season. Warm weather and serious indoor music are a rare mix, and this is the time of year to experience the best of both.  So it was no surprise last Saturday to encounter a happy swirl of German voices in the Davies Hall lobby.  In fairness to heresy, the French were also out in good humor–or at least the Belgians and Swiss–and for a very German program, too–not to mention unusual numbers of young Asian women, about which more in a moment.

When all is said and done, this turned out to be one of Michael Tilson Thomas’s most effective forays into German repertory, but I think the time may now have come to put away Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 for a while.  Before Saturday’s umpteenth recent performance, (including several by visiting orchestras), we were informed that  the overture was to be recorded for television. One has the feeling that certain rather obvious pieces are being overplayed lately and then preserved for electronic media on the audience dime.  San Francisco listeners remain compliant and cough-free. The programming suffers.  Ahem.

MTT’s conception of the overture, to his credit, appears uninfluenced by the phrasing habits of the early music movement. Indeed, with eight basses on stage and seemingly everyone else but the saxophone player in the mix, the orchestra delivered up powerful Beethoven of old.  It would be hard to fault it for energy, tempo or sonority. And the offstage trumpets were beautifully balanced, ringing out from a different obscured location each time. Applause all around!

In his autobiography, Erich Leinsdorf named the Leonore Overture No. 3 as the finest example of sonata form in all of Beethoven, and possibly in all of music.  This may well be a recommendation of sorts, but I expect it has little to do with why audiences either would or wouldn’t want to hear the piece. In fifty years of listening, I’ve never heard anyone express a special fondness for the music. Why is it always there? There isn’t exactly anything wrong with it.  But perhaps Beethoven may have written something else…?

Any such musings were suddenly interrupted by the flash-mob screams of what must have been five hundred Asian teenage girls, echoing wavelike along the periphery of the hall.  Patrons sitting in the orchestra section were startled by this unanticipated game-show chorus, and many eyes scanned the upper perimeters of the room, missing entirely Yo-Yo Ma’s well-choreographed entrance onstage.

Ma’s well-deserved mega-fame, and how he uses it, are two faces of the same art.  His renown, like a President’s, is grander than that of any place he visits, so he must comfortably acknowledge the flurry at his arrival with just a touch of “aw shucks” humility, yet still, in his suited formality, convey the benign and competent dignity people expect.  Ma is a master at this, standing with his suit coat open, leashing his cello off to the side like a Golden Retriever and smiling through horn rims like a Harvard dean at a lawn party.

Earlier in his career, Yo-Yo Ma was sometimes accused of excessive facial expression, but unlike Renee Fleming, he seems to have gotten his affect under control and no longer mugs to the music.  What hasn’t changed is the burnished glory of his tone and the energy and enthusiasm with which he sweeps into the music.  And I expect the effect is deliberate when, after a violent chord, his cello turns out to be supported by a pin so long and thin that the entire instrument goes on quivering in the spotlight–long after hands have left it.

The Cello Concerto is one of Hindemith’s best pieces, and sadly neglected if that is the case. It is a virtual twin of the Symphony in E-flat.  Both were written in 1940 and make use of his signature motoric devices, especially in the bass drum and cymbals. Like Tchaikovsky, who crashes to a sudden halt in mid-finale of his Fourth Symphony, Hindemith delivers similar stunned-to-a-halt climaxes in both pieces.  It is rare to find a concerto that sweeps along as powerfully as a symphony, but this one does. And as with the Symphony in E-flat, it purrs like a heavy brass engine and gleams from head to toe like a Buick in a bright light.

Later Hindemith works, such as the “Pittsburgh Symphony,” sometimes resemble an odd melding of hearty American tunes and reworked Bach.  But the Hindemith of 1940 is like those old “Life Magazine” covers depicting Hoover Dam, art-deco locomotives and streamlined aircraft cowlings.  The machine age as hero. And very much like Walton.  Indeed, the two composers were friends, and Walton’s last orchestral work is a set of variations on the slow movement of this concerto.  But unlike the music of Shostakovich, Hindemith’s works from this period convey no misery or sense of oppression. Just bigness. And a certain processional dignity about the pace of life. But there are those, one supposes, who find listening to it a bit like being locked up inside a marine engine as big as the Ritz.

None of these concerns were evident in Davies Hall. The orchestra, Ma and MTT sounded made for the music. And the brass and percussion were on fire.  Applause was greater than for the Brahms Symphony to follow, and not entirely because of Yo-Yo Ma’s reputational spell.  The Hindemith cello concerto really is the sort of piece one can fall in love with on first hearing. That was surprising….if you stop to think that no one will probably ever release a CD entitled “Immortal Love Melodies of Paul Hindemith”!

The evening’s program concluded with a sort of 1965 performance of the Brahms First Symphony, which is to say that the introduction was taken faster than is the custom today, and ditto the first movement Allegro.  This was all to the good, and after the Hindemith, the orchestra’s timpanist was in no mood to be mushy, as MTT’s rhythms can sometimes be, so there was real power to be heard, as well. Applause was everything one could wish.

In general, the SFS has the makings of a good Brahms orchestra. One could argue that the flute/oboe/clarinet blend is not a particularly beautiful one…the woodwinds have a way to go to blend like those in the Vienna Philharmonic, but the real Brahms oddity is Michael Tilson Thomas, himself. For reasons not entirely clear, his demeanor before Brahms seems slightly ironic and mocking, as if the gravitas of the music itself is an embarrassment to him.  One doesn’t have to experience Bruno Walter’s beatific smile—or Karajan’s eyes closed within a dream—to know that something is a little off-kilter, when MTT beats time through Brahms like a golfer nonchalantly swinging at the stray blade of grass.

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