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Although he has held his west coast post for 12 years and consistently advocated American fare throughout his tenure, Michael Tilson Thomas has also retained the loyalties to the British music community that he forged during his London Symphony Orchestra hegemony decades ago. No British composer has benefited more from this unbroken relationship than Robin Holloway, whose Fourth Concerto for Orchestra marks his third commission for the San Francisco Symphony, a record topped in recent decades only by the home boy, John Adams.
In this instance, Tilson Thomas got a lot more than he bargained for. During its four-year gestation, the concerto grew from three-quarters of an hour to 75 minutes; for the premiere, composer and conductor sanctioned the omission of the fifth of the six movements.
Fortunately, Holloway proved equally generous, if not prodigal of substance. This vastly ambitious and compelling essay, inspired by the medieval epic Piers Plowman, disdains narrative elements in favour of tracing a spiritual journey from the void to an apotheosis, with rest stops for sampling human foibles and frailties. In an era that smiles upon compression, Holloway fearlessly paints on an expansive orchestral canvas, one that he has suffused with myriad opportunities for sectional brilliance.
Echoes of Sibelius, Walton and Ives notwithstanding, the concerto finds its own voice as it broods eloquently, swings into a hedonistic rondo and trips through a dance suite describing the seven deadly sins, adorned with puckish markings, such as “Andante glutinoso”. Jocular syncopations wrestle with outbursts from a huge pitched timpani battery before an enveloping peroration. No sensation of padding here: every cadence seems to open a portal to another eventful landscape and another challenge for the players. Tilson Thomas’s febrile leadership served as a tribute to the superb instrument he has shaped in the past dozen years.
Then the conductor adroitly accompanied Christian Tetzlaff, one of his favoured soloists of late, in a Brahms D major violin concerto, predicated on exquisitely manicured line and uncommon restraint. Following the Holloway, the absence of oppressive Romantic rhetoric was doubly welcome.
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