Symphonic illuminations in September

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday September 24, 2019
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Daniil Trifonov performs Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Photo: Grittani Creative LTD
Daniil Trifonov performs Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Photo: Grittani Creative LTD

September concerts in Michael Tilson Thomas' 25th and final season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony are telling us what we may expect as he sets the seal on an historic legacy. MTT's greatest hits and artistic strengths are rolling out with fresh energy and insight. Davies Symphony Hall is livelier than ever.

Last week, the maestro displayed his gracious support of a musical soloist, offered a smart reminder of the Orchestra's successful recording projects, and conducted a World Premiere that showed the inspiration he gives to present-day composers.

During the previous week, first of the season's subscription series concerts, he devoted the entire program to Mahler's profoundly affecting Symphony No. 6 in A minor, sometimes referred to as the "Tragic." As an example of MTT's ongoing intellectual and emotional involvement with the composer, the performance provided another illuminating look at the score's details and Mahler's (and MTT's) thrilling grasp of showmanship.

The Sixth keeps coming back to the SFS, perhaps most memorably in the bewildering days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The awful pain of the Symphony No. 6 truly earned the title "Tragic," and superb performances brought listeners together in a remarkable catharsis. Years passed, and the Symphony returned as a rather clear-eyed look at the certainty of death. Now, MTT seems inclined to explore the lighter elements and vivid theatrical strokes of the massive score.

Sitting to my left was an admirably attentive younger man (no condescension meant) and directly across the aisle to my right, composer John Adams. When Jacob Nissly (Principal Percussion) appeared in the Terrace above and behind the orchestra, wielding a mallet almost his own size to deliver the terrifying strikes of fate in the finale, both companion listeners reacted like a couple of excited kids. Stomping their feet with the mighty blows, they joined in the awesome experience. Once again, MTT brought a sense of mutual involvement with Mahler's expressive greatness.

Most recently, Fearless Leader opened a sort of grab-bag (Ferragamo, of course) concert with the World Premiere of aforementioned John Adams' brief, fun tribute to the "continued youthful vitality" of "my longtime friends, Joshua and Michael." Including MTT's husband and business partner in the dedication illustrates the affection shared by "industry" musicians with the famous pair. Adams has a relationship with the conductor that goes back even farther than MTT's 25-year tenure.

At eight minutes, "I Still Dance" (Joshua Robison is still an enthusiastic swing dancer) is a quick (crazy fast) curtain-raiser that manages to show Adams' brilliantly transparent orchestration and quirky, instantly recognizable harmonic rhythmic style. One listening wasn't enough, but the rush of adrenaline and "soft landing" the piece (co-commissioned by the SFS and Carnegie Hall) provides certainly kept listeners' attention.

Young Russian piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov appeared next for a predictably dazzling rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff's revised, somewhat overlooked, "problem" Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, opus 40 (1926/1941).

If some snobs dismiss Rachmaninoff as a facile writer of musical Faberge Eggs — glittering and pretty, but ultimately useless — they are denying his astonishing gift for memorably moving melodies and exciting orchestration. The Fourth Concerto shows him at strength, maybe even tighter than usual. The big tunes rush in with emotionally satisfying power, and solo passages are predictably intricate and demanding. Trifonov, looking a bit like a wan Rasputin, hunched over the keyboard and delivered persuasively. MTT and the orchestra offered rich-sounding support and interaction with care.

The concert closed with an earlier example of classical Romantic repertory. Schumann's beautiful and appropriately, autumnal Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish," is a stand-out in MTT's recent set of complete Schumann symphonies on the orchestra's SFS Media label. The recorded performance shows his knack for bringing out chamber details in a big orchestral work. The recent matinee was less successful in making the case for a work that sometimes feels like a tone poem, but the finale, emerging from solemn shade to exuberant, sunny warmth, was totally convincing.

This week MTT wraps September with Stravinsky and Haydn, two highly contrasted but delightfully compatible composers.