Both sides (of the pond) now
by Philip Campbell
On Monday night a few weeks back, HBO staged a gala Season Five premiere for mega-series Game of Thrones at the War Memorial Opera House, while on the other side of Grove Street, a different but also thrilling cultural event captivated another sold-out crowd at Davies Symphony Hall. The London Symphony Orchestra appeared with former Principal Conductor and current Principal Guest Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for the second night of two different showcase concerts included as part of the orchestra's MTT 70th Birthday Tour in the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers series. It was cause for lots of excitement and celebration, not least because of MTT's four decades of association with the LSO, but also for the uniquely satisfying display of obvious musical camaraderie and dedication given him on both sides of the big pond.
After 20 years on the podium as Music Director of the SFS, it was a little disconcerting seeing him in front of so many other smiling faces onstage at DSH. And it certainly looked like no cost was spared in sending every available LSO member on the US tour. The large program hit the ground running and never let up until, after encores, a happy and exhausted crowd was bid good night two-and-a-half-hours later. MTT and the LSO, not to mention the youthful guest soloist Yuja Wang, could probably have gone on longer. It was just that kind of a party.
The opening selection was British composer Colin Matthews' brief Hidden Variables for Orchestra. The original chamber version was transcribed for orchestra as a co-commission from the LSO and New World Symphony for MTT, and first performed in 1992. Influences range from Schoenberg to Ligeti, and most noticeably, Steve Reich and John Adams (big-time). Matthews himself was in attendance, and it took some coaxing getting him onstage, but Hidden Variables, like much of the composer's music, is more than simply derivative. He synthesizes his inspirations well, and if the piece must have sounded a little dated even 25 years ago, he still creates an interesting sound of his own.
Pianist Yuja Wang entered next to gasps of what sounded like surprised approval in a stunning neon-lime dress, but her reputation for fashion-forward apparel is only a part of her appeal, and her kinetic energy and talent quickly had us concentrating more on her star performance. Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F is MTT territory, and his English colleagues followed his sure hand in framing Wang's wonderful interpretation. A special spotlighting allowed LSO Co-Principal Trumpet Philip Cobb to make his mark in some perfectly idiomatic solos.
The second half brought another MTT traversal of Shostakovich's gargantuan Symphony No. 5, and it was more than a little interesting to see that he is still tinkering with his interpretation after so many equally thrilling performances here with the SFS.
The Fifth is arguably the composer's most famous work, and whatever one thinks of the supposed subtext (ironic nods to Soviet might, etc.), there can never be any doubt as to the work's tremendously wrenching impact. It takes a big enactment with big gestures to bring off well, and here is where MTT's and the LSO's reading slightly edged out the more tailored and sharp performances with our own orchestra. The LSO is known for a big and sumptuous if slightly wild sound, and this was a performance to blow the top off the hall.
Wang had made her encore a slight and charming piece written for her by MTT called You Come Here Often?, reading the music from an iPad. The Orchestra's encore was a sweeping Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1, read more traditionally from scores.
The evening ultimately offered a wealth of insights and rewards to concertgoers and fans of Michael Tilson Thomas who have followed his career on both sides of the Atlantic. He has moved into the 21st century seamlessly, embracing change and growth with his trademark energy and passion. LSO, SFS, NWS: MTT.