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San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson-Thomas, Music Director
27 January, 2009
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Copland: Our Town (Film Score)
Berg: 3 Pieces for Orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No. 1

By Fred Granlund         

Several times each season, the Los Angeles Philharmonic invites visiting orchestras to perform in Walt
Disney Concert Hall--as if to remind us that our "home team" still compares with the best. Last Fall the
Israel Philharmonic was here, under our own Music Director-Designate, Gustavo Dudamel, and in
March the Vienna Philharmonic will give two concerts under former Music Director Zubin Mehta. That
close association between the visiting orchestra and our own past and future conductors, whether
coincidental or not, will continue next season as former Associate Conductor Simon Rattle brings his
Berlin Philharmonic to Disney Hall, and was in evidence again this week as the San Francisco
Symphony presented two concerts under its Music Director, Michael Tilson-Thomas, yet another former
Associate Conductor here.
Tour concerts never give a completely accurate picture of a visiting orchestra. While the music itself
has been honed and polished over many performances, touring schedules are often quite punishing,
with many concerts in a short period and tiring flights and bus trips between cities. And the concerts are
necessarily given in unfamiliar halls, often with little or no time to rehearse and "tune" the performance
to the hall. The visiting San Francisco Symphony gave very polished performances and showed no
signs of fatigue Tuesday evening, although it was clear the orchestra is accustomed to working in a
much less responsive hall (their Davies Symphony Hall is quite cavernous compared with ours, the
sound more distant and blended even close to the stage). Thus, the dynamic range was several
notches higher than necessary, the quiet passages never achieving the ethereal quality we enjoy from
our own orchestra, and the climaxes quite deafening. But the music was clearly chosen to show off the
orchestra, and that it certainly did.
Copland's score for "Our Town," the film based on Thornton Wilder's iconic play about everyday life in
a small New England town, fits the subject like a proverbial glove (and indeed won an Oscar
nomination). But the film is slow-moving and even less dramatic than the play, so as concert music it's
dangerously subdued (imagine all the calm moments in Appalachian Spring strung together without the
livelier, more striking passages in between). "MTT" and the orchestra made it sound quite beautiful,
however, and for its mere nine minutes that's all it really needs. Things changed rather dramatically
after that, as the stage filled with additional players for Berg's "Three Pieces for Orchestra." Completed
just before World War I, the music has a nightmarish quality that the conductor, in his very articulate
introduction to the work, attributed to Berg's premonition of the disaster about to befall Europe (as well
as the recent death of Gustav Mahler and other signs that an era was coming to an end). That makes
sense in the context, but Berg's music of the '20s and '30s is fraught with a similar tension that can't be
explained in the same way. Such questions aside, the performance vividly conjured images of war and
destruction, along with what seemed to suggest desperate efforts to hang on to at least some
fragments of the genteel, aristocratic Viennese lifestyle that was about to meet its end. Textures were
remarkably clear and balanced, making it possible to actually hear the thematic progress (and having
the orchestra demonstrate key moments in the work before the performance turned out to be a brilliant
After intermission, with the dust finally settled and a "normal" sized orchestra back on stage, were
treated to a second reading of Brahms' towering First Symphony in as many months, this one proving
an enlightening contrast to the first. Where Marin Alsop and our Philharmonic gave us Brahms the
Romantic, leading us on a journey through a new and fantastical world, Tilson Thomas and his skilled,
responsive players showed us a forward-looking Brahms, more objective and clearly a transitional
figure at the turn of the century. Of course, Brahms didn't see himself that way; he was trying to live up
to expectations of himself as the New Beethoven; a seminal figure, no doubt, but positioned at the end
of his era, not the beginning of the next. In any case, there were many moments of warmth in this
generally clear-eyed performance, occasional hints that the conductor wanted us to hear just how
intricate and imaginative this work is, and a few spots where just "getting it right" is an exhilarating feat
(for example, starting the "big tune" in the final movement in tempo, rather than letting it gather
momentum over several pages, which seems suggested by a common mis-reading of the score). And
the orchestra sounded splendid, when not straining for outsized climaxes. The San Francisco
Symphony has always been the "other" orchestra out here, but those comparisons unfairly diminish its
considerable achievements. For a city one-fifth the size of Los Angeles, an orchestra of this quality is
extremely rare, and well-deserving of the wide civic support it enjoys. And after all, San Francisco has
had a distinguished opera company for far longer than we have.
This weekend, our Philharmonic is again onstage, with guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and violin
soloist Hilary Hahn, and music from 19th-Century Russia (Tchaikovsky, Glazunov) and 20th-Century
America (Steven Stucky, William Schuman). As always, anticipation is high.