JWR Articles: Live Event - San Francisco Symphony (Featured performer: Paul Jacobs) - September 12, 2010

San Francisco Symphony

4 4

RCA RL 02905
Music most elegant

What a glorious night for music.

With the arrival of the San Francisco Symphony in Lucerne, another dimension has been emphatically added to this series of concerts: elegance.

Who would have imagined that some of the finest chamber music (in the best tradition of one person per part) heard thus far would emanate from the “Prelude” of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony. The principal violin and viola (especially when playing simultaneously, producing a single, distinct colour) and cello clearly demonstrated why they lead their respective sections?

Organist Paul Jacobs finally revealed the superb instrument housed in the Kultur Kongresszentrum Luzern concert hall for all of its full-blooded power and intimate possibilities (somewhat underplayed in previous outings—cross-reference below).

While the “Scherzo” started a tad untogether, once it settled the organ/orchestra interplay was a constant delight as Jacob deftly switched his settings with breathtaking ease in the flash of a stop. (The reeds were especially captivating—at one point the combination had a curiously vintage-radio hue).

The full string complement—notably the violas who would be the envy of many other orchestras—dug deep but never harshly into Copland’s imaginative voicing, adding much to the success of the “Finale.”

For nearly 30 minutes the room was awash in some of the most refined playing yet heard—due in large part to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas who exudes elegance in his leadership style, which is most certainly contagious. He is particularly adept at drawing full, carefully terraced sound from all sections, letting the players assert themselves where required but rarely tarnishing the result with anything resembling crass or ugly tone—would that more of his colleagues do likewise (cross-reference below).

The Mahler symphony that followed had many magnificent moments that were at one with the composer’s orchestration brilliance and emotional depth, yet there were also times when Thomas needed to find and employ the magical component of spontaneity to drive all five movements into the soul.

The “Funeral March” was wonderfully dark and a model of articulation in all families of instruments; the solo trumpets were appropriately meancing and nearly note-perfect.

Thomas, the strings and the discreetly rendered harp (Douglas Rioth) gave the “Adagietto” a compelling air that only wanted a touch more impulsiveness to move Mahler’s deeply stated love from excellent to unforgettable.

The “Rondo-Finale” sagged the most—its spectacular conclusion always on the horizon (and spectacular it was) but the journey towards it verged on the mundane.

With this level of achievement in the first program, the remaining two are highly anticipated. JWR

Historical Perspective

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5
RCA RL 02905
1978, 73’
James Levine, The Philadelphia Orchestra
Two and one-half stars

On paper, it probably seemed a good idea to combine The Philadelphia Orchestra with James Levine for a Mahler symphony. The result is a disappointing reading that has a lot of sonic goodness but little dramatic or emotional impact.

The master of opera seems lost without a plot. A consistent dynamic plan would have been a big help in bringing the truly fantastic score to life. Especially troubling are brutal accents taken out of their context (a sforzando in a pianissimo section is miles away from one that is forte). Harmonic direction is also MIA, notably the full or half step descending lines that should be pulling the ear into a new tonal realm; the frequent appoggiaturas without a discreet amount of weight never serve their intended purpose.

The orchestra follows like a hawk, providing much precision and crispness, yet without the request for inner tension and the freedom of a beat that trusts the musicians to sort out some of the rhythmical challenges, the famous “Adagietto” has seldom sounded so bloodless. The “Scherzo” features principal horn Mason Jones who, along with his colleagues and the trombones employ a somewhat raw tone that belies the sheen of the strings and woodwinds (notably the principal flute who ends the opening Trauermarsch with marvellously crafted tone and subtle understatement). JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

With special exhibits such as Andy Warhol - The Early Sixties: Paintings and Drawings 1961-1964 and a treasure trove of works from Swiss masters and their contemporaries, time spent in the Kunstmuseum Basel is a stimulating change from the musical arts. JWR

Your comments are always welcome at JWR.

Click here to have your say (please mention the headline for the article):Feedback to JWR.

Conductor - Michael Tilson Thomas
Comparative conductor - James Levine
Featured performer - Paul Jacobs
Organ Symphony - Aaron Copland
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor - Gustav Mahler
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Lucerne Festival San Francisco Symphony Orchestra The Philadelphia Orchestra
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
for related work: