Friday, February 13, 2015

MTT 70th Birthday Gala

Yes, it was a month ago, but hey - I'm behind in so much.

Michael Tilson Thomas turned 70 in December, and this year is his 20th anniversary as music director as SFS. The double anniversary provided the occasion for a gala concert. It wasn't advertised as such, but the ticket prices and the conductor's remarks made it clear that it was, indeed, a gala. The particular good cause seems to be The Michael Tilson Thomas 70th Birthday Fund, supporting the acquisition of fine stringed instruments for use by members of the Orchestra, and the program and press release named a number of generous donors to this fund. Rich Scheinin reported in the Mercury News that the guest soloists also donated their fees to the orchestra's community outreach and education funds.

Davies was decked out with blue and white balloons, and attendees were invited to wear a touch of blue, MTT's favorite color. The program opened with a completely charming slide show of the conductor from toddlerhood to adulthood; through the miracle of software, his face morphed continuously from one to the next. Face it: he has always been a cutie with a great smile. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Scott Pingel (SFS principal bass), and Jacob Nissly (SFS principal percussionist) played Gershwin's "Sweet and Lowdown" while the photos rolled, and proved that they can swing pretty darned well.

The program was really a little bit nuts, a lot of fun with nothing especially deep; on the other hand, it was a gala, and it will be a long time before you hear Liszt's Hexameron again, or have MTT, Yuja Wang, Emmanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Thibaudet, and Marc-Andre Hamelin on stage together again.

A bit of Bizet opened the orchestral portion, followed by four of the guest pianists playing solo bits from his or her characteristic repertory. Wang played the Scherzo from Litolff's Concerto Symphonique No. 4, which I found a boring performance of a flashy, overly-long movement from a truly terrible piece of music. (Yes, dear reader, about a decade ago I spent $17.95 to find that out. There are very good reasons that Litolff's music never appears on concerts any more.) Ax played the Andante from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Thibaudet and Denk played Schubert's Marche caractéristique, Op. 121, No. 1, with MTT looking over their shoulder and occasionally helping with page turns. That was a lot of fun, if also a bit frenetic. Best of all was the first of these solos, Hamelin playing the third movement of Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto. Hoo boy!

The big surprise of the evening came right before the intermission: I had wondered about the drum kit sitting on stage throughout the first half, and out came Elvis Costello, Boz Scaggs, Phil Lesh, and others to serenade MTT with the Beatles' "Birthday."

After the intermission - during which there was cake and champagne for all - came Hexameron, a crazy piece where, if I have this right, Liszt wrote the intro and connective tissue and a bunch of famous pianists contributed individual sections. Holy cow! No wonder you never hear this often; evidently the original is lost and what we heard was a reconstruction. It was all a lot of fun, and for me the best variation was that played by Jeremy Denk: I kept looking around to see who else was playing, because I could have sworn there were two pianos or four hands going. Nope, it was all Denk all the way.

Ax, Hamelin, Denk, and Thibaudet then played an arrangement for four pianists at two pianos of the Galop from the William Tell Overture. Wish they'd played the whole overture! And the concert closed with a mostly-conductorless Candide Overture.....after which members of the SFS Chorus came down the aisles of Davies, armed with more balloons, and everybody sang Happy Birthday to the maestro.

[That's right, completely forgot about the very beautifully played Tchaikowsky, not my favorite music.]

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