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 saving grace of “music for children,” I find, is that it is never really composed for children, but about them — or more usually about the part of us which traffics in irony, yet yearns to remain simple and pure. There are few lullabies effective for sleep which would long engage an adult mind, so I know Sasha Cooke will forgive me for saying that her stunningly effective rendition of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies last Tuesday at Music at Menlo, outwitted Morpheus.
For a good part of this reviewer’s life, it would seem, the world has been waiting for a truly great International French symphony orchestra. At mid-century, a general feeling was that the Boston Symphony under Sergei Koussevitzky and Charles Munch carried the torch for French music, ably assisted by Paul Paray in Detroit, Pierre Monteux wherever he could be found, and, on disc, by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva.
1939 must have been the year neoclassic front ranks gave up on William Walton. Here was the “English Stravinsky”, who had burst forth with silvery elbow-wit in “Facade” and scandalized church officials in “Belshazzar’s Feast.” More recently, his First Symphony had transformed telegraphic rhythm into sheer motorized power, gleaming and heartless. (only the finale, composed late and omitted at the premiere, had hinted at something more sensual and cinematic) The earlier Viola Concerto had parsed-out like the cleanest Hindemith, moving because of its beauty, but bereft of the senses.