From Juliet Williams in Edinburgh
The visit of the San Francisco Symphony under their principal chief conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, was one of the highlights of both this year's Edinburgh Festival and the BBC Proms. It has been a very enjoyable opportunity for British audiences to see this distinctive orchestra perform live, and a welcome return visit for a conductor who has been pivotal in recent London concert-going years. The Edinburgh performances were thoroughly enjoyable and the classical repertoire featuring Yuja Wang as soloist sold out, but – perhaps with a more familiar venue, or more time to acclimatise – the London performances had the slight edge in all the works repeated there.
Beginning the tour in Scotland, the opening performance in Edinburgh (Thurs 27th August) showcased a work commissioned for the orchestra's centenary in 2012, John Adams' Absolute Jest. This work pays homage to Beethoven and in particular the late quartets, which are heavily quoted. However it creates a very new musical experience by having a string quartet – here the - St Lawrence Quartet – performing with full symphony orchestra. No one player is a soloist in the conventional concerto sense, nor even in the way that the solo parts of a double concerto are distributed; the quartet is collectively one but many-layered voice, which passes the melodic lead between the orchestra and itself as well as between its players. Hence the work looks forward as well as back; it creates a new musical experience in its form; it is modern in its sound world and it pays homage to one of classical music's most important figures. It is a very fitting piece for the orchestra's centenary. San Francisco Symphony have also recorded this piece.
This orchestra is to my mind heard at its best in minimalist works. It has a glistening, shimmery sound which is uplifting to the listener, hopeful and expansive. Whilst the Adams commission brought this out more than any other work on the programme, it was also brought to the fore in the expansive later sections of the second movement in Tchaikovsky's Fifth, which was performed to close the second Edinburgh concert and was a surprise highlight of the tour.
The Adams commission was given context by the performance also of Beethoven's own work: in Edinburgh, his fourth Piano Concerto in which Yuja Wang was the flamboyant soloist and in London the Eroica symphony too. Ms Wang was very popular with the Edinburgh audience, the Usher Hall was filled to capacity and she received rapturous applause. She joined the San Francisco Symphony again in London on August 31st, this time to give a very enjoyable account of Bartok's Second Piano Concerto.
Perhaps the highlight of the entire visit though was the performance of Mahler – of whom Michael Tilson Thomas is a noted interpreter – his first ('Titan') symphony forming the second half of the first Edinburgh concert and being repeated on Sun 30th August at the Proms, when it was also broadcast live on Radio Three.
The first of the London performances included Boston-based pianist Jeremy Denk playing more of what he has described as 'bad boy pianism', the idiosyncratic Henry Cowell concerto. Denk described Cowell as the 'San Francisco-born wildboy of the keyboard' and his piece as, 'a violation of the piano'. Cowell is to be BBC Radio Three's 'Composer of the Week' soon, which should illuminate further his unusual life and work for those who would like to find out more about him. Bartok's influence is clear in this concerto, which therefore was put in context by performance of Bartok's own work the following evening, much as with the Adams commission and the Beethoven works. The piano part also at times evokes Rudzewski's writing for that instrument.
No American programme would be complete without Ives, and his ‘Decoration Day’ from 'New England Holidays' opened the second evening in both venues whilst 'The Alcotts' from 'Concord' was Jeremy Denk's encore. The first of the two concerts was opened by a particularly enjoyable account of Schoenberg's Theme and Variations (Op 43b) – possibly the best live performance I've ever heard of this particular piece.