I picked up tickets for this week's San Francisco Symphony concert with some trepidation, because on the program were two works by MTT hisownself. The last piece of his I'd heard, the overblown, 40-minute Island Music, for two marimbas, had sounded like something produced by an undergraduate composer who'd listened to way, way, way too much late 70s Glass and Reich. Not only that, it sat on a concert between masterpieces, a selection of Berio's tiny, marvelous violin duets and Janacek's monumental Glagolitic Mass.
Not to worry: last night's selections between them were half the length of Island Music. One of them, the cheery occasional piece Agnegram, was sufficiently amusing, with its Bernstein-like gestures, klaxons, and jokes, that I'd be happy to hear it again. It's a superb little curtain-raiser.
Notturno, written in honor of the now-retired Paul Renzi, long the principal flutist of the San Francisco Symphony, is another matter. MTT's comments indicate that it's an hommage to a type of work that has fallen out of favor, the light virtuoso showpiece. The composer cites hearing concerts by Jascha Heifetz and other performers of that era, on which he'd heard this kind of chestnut. He was aiming for a similar feel.
You need two things to make this type of work convincing: the ability to write an unselfconscious showpiece and a virtuoso who can bring it off with perfect aplomb and plenty of panache, without breaking a sweat and making it all sound very, very easy.
In an age of irony, meeting that first requirement is tough, and Notturno doesn't make it. On one hand, each section is derived from some past style of popular showpiece. First the English countryside goes by, and you think of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Then there's a tarantella and you think of sunny Italy. Then there's a section with Spanish rhythms, and you think of Bizet and how much better he was at writing Spanish-style music. You also think of De Falla and his superb settings of Spanish folk songs. Toward the end, you start thinking it's too long. If you're going to try to pull this kind of piece off, you need to do it better than Notturno does it.
On the other hand, you read the program notes and discover the piece has a subtext about the life of a performer. I'm glad I read the program notes after the concert. Advice to the budding composer: some things are better left unsaid. Resist the temptation to talk too much about your own music, especially when you are really good when talking about music by other composers.
Then there's that second requirement, the virtuoso performer with fingers of steel. Well, Paula Robison played all the notes, as far as I could tell, but the rest? She flubbed attacks left and right, not quite landing squarely on an astonishing number of pitches. Lots of air in her tone, which was nothing special to begin with, and I'm not talking about the section where the flutist is clearly supposed to play with a lot of air in the tone, trying to sound faintly bluesy. Tim Day, the Symphony's principal flutist, would have played this piece much better.
The first half of the concert closed a meandering and unfocussed performance of Sibelius's compact Seventh Symphony. A friend tells me he heard pastel colors and a song all of one piece; I heard shapelessness, lack of forward movement, and a conductor without much feel for the work's tricky rhythmic organization. Esa-Pekka Salonen - you knew I'd say this - played it much more persuasively in Los Angeles this past October.
I'd like to say that my seat in the center terrace had something to do with how the Sibelius came off, because of the wide variation in sound quality in different sections of Davies. But the Shostakovich Ninth, which closed the program, sounded crisp and clear and focussed. Whatever happened in the Sibelius was what MTT intended.
And hearing the Shostakovich was like listening to another conductor entirely, one fully in charge and in command of the composer's rhetoric. And an entertaining rhetoric it is, all cheeky circus music in the outer movements, with much beautiful solo work for the winds in the inner movements. Hooray for Carey Bell, Catherine Payne, and especially principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson; they were all great. Joshua Kosman's review gets it just right, and in more detail.