March 17, 2014 5:40 pm

San Francisco SO/Michael Tilson Thomas, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

Under Michael Tilson Thomas the ensemble’s performances were technically proficient but lacking emotional engagement
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall©Robert Garbolinski

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall

American orchestras are always welcome in London: they clarify what unites and divides us. We speak the same language – Mahler, Berlioz, John Adams – but inhabit different cultures. That much was underlined by the San Francisco Symphony’s weekend concerts in the Shell Classic International series.

To the orchestra’s credit, it played a substantial slice of home-grown music instead of the token Americana most US ensembles take on tour. Saturday night brought an Ives curio, a new Adams concerto and a piquant Copland encore – the latter coming after Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Sunday afternoon was devoted to Mahler, a composer closely identified with the orchestra’s conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.

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The overriding impression was of an ensemble that, while expert at playing the notes, refuses to take responsibility for the music – a charge you could never lay at the door of orchestras in Berlin, London, Munich or Vienna. Time and again we were left admiring these musicians’ corporate discipline and technical finish, while lamenting their methodically “correct” – and sometimes downright prosaic – engagement with the score.

They sleepwalked through Berlioz’s “Ball” and “March to the Scaffold”, robbing the musical drama of energy and intensity. As for Mahler’s Third Symphony, they tiptoed through the first-movement march and treated the hymn-like finale with reverential respect. There was ne’er a hint of abandon. Yes, you could count the beautiful moments – all in Mahler’s reflective passages, though not the third movement’s offstage posthorn calls, which sounded like an ordinary trumpet. The best thing about this performance was Sasha Cooke, the American mezzo whose resonant tone and intelligent projection raised the fourth movement to a different level.

How much the San Franciscans’ temperamental disengagement is down to American symphonic culture and how much to Tilson Thomas – whose tenure has now run to 19 long years – is anyone’s guess. What no one can deny is his pivotal role in raising the national and international profile of American composers. His choice here was nevertheless odd.

The orchestration of the third movement of Ives’s Concord piano sonata was undertaken by Henry Brant long after the composer’s death, and sounds embarrassingly slight, soft-centred and un-Ivesian. As for Adams’s Absolute Jest, a single-movement concerto for string quartet and orchestra, the composer himself has acknowledged the difficulties involved in such a combination, and this performance by the St Lawrence String Quartet made me wonder why he persisted. The quartet blends too easily with the accompaniment and expends a lot of energy just to stand still. By the end, the concerto starts to resemble the very type of academic New England music Adams went to California to escape.


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