Tilson Thomas at the Kennedy Center

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas inspires confidence in front of an orchestra. No matter what the publicity photos may suggest, he is a low-key presence, with a ramrod straight back and relatively minimal gestures. But when he’s leading the San Francisco Symphony, of which he’s been music director for fifteen years now, he doesn’t need a lot of gesticulation to get his work done.

The San Francisco Symphony played the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, a strange, interesting, sometimes frustrating program. But it was a very assured evening of music making, and that assurance seemed to emanate from Tilson Thomas. In a ramshackle tone poem by Liszt, one daft idea followed another, but under the conductor’s guidance, they were daft ideas elegantly joined. In a new piece by the Russian Victor Kissine, a study in stasis and orchestral elaboration, the colors were clear and vibrant, even if the composer overworked his material. In Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, a basic concept—that this is big, brassy, heard-it-on-the-radio music—was pursued smartly and honestly and yielded a performance that made Ravel seem simple and appealing, though not always subtle and elegant.

Even when you disagree with Tilson Thomas, however, you have to admire the craftsmanship and easy rapport with the musicians. In Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, with Christian Tetzlaff as soloist, the communion with the orchestra, the San Francisco’s natural strengths, the conductor’s taste and the soloist’s idiosyncrasies all came together. This was a memorable performance from beginning to end, with the expansive first movement expanded yet further into a leisurely amble, and the energy of the last movement, by contrast, even more explosively exciting.

Tetzlaff was given room to stretch out and breath in the opening, and he took it. He went for clarity over speed, sometimes  slowing tempi to fit in an almost didactic precision. Even the cadenza felt a bit like a schematic diagram, not because the playing was cold or clinical, but because it was so rigorous. Harmonics were perfectly placed, double stops cleanly rendered. His sound isn’t huge and he never tries to dominate the orchestra. But you’ll hear more of what Tchaikovsky wrote in the score from Tetzlaff  han you will from violinists who want to soar above it all with commanding tone and reckless speed.

The new work, Kissine’s Post-scriptum, is dedicated to Tilson Thomas and the orchestra. It is written for large orchestra, with a full complement of exotica in the percussion section. It unfolds at a consistent, slower-than-a-heart-beat tempo, often building up chord figures in one section of the orchestra than passing the idea to another. The orchestration at times reminds one of Messiaen’s attempts to suggest the ethereal with cheap toys. Tristan slithered in and out of focus, too, as Kissine introduced chromatic sliding in and around his stately chord figures. A haunting solo violin passage near the end of the piece put together some of the melodic fragments that Kissine so assiduously scattered and fractured throughout the beginning and middle of the work. It was quite powerful, though it reminded one of Schnittke. It’s hard to feel strongly about this music, though. It is well made, but too long.

Liszt’s Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo is alas, too long, and not well made. It does a disservice to poor Tasso, who was a better poet than Liszt was a composer, and to Goethe,  whose sad little play based on Tasso’s life inspired the piece (and deserves to be seen more often than it is, if it is ever seen at all). Liszt relies on bluster and large volumes of complicated orchestral figuration to build tension. But the music has no inherent tension in it, so the gestures are hollow. It feels like one of his lesser piano pieces orchestrated to a fare-the-well.

It does, however, show off the orchestra. San Francisco played it about as well as you’ll ever hear it played (brilliant brass and exquisitely quiet woodwind solos),  in part because Tilson Thomas took the piece seriously, never minimizing its pure showiness,  nor  allowing his band to crash through it for cheap effect. This is the first and last Tasso you’ll ever need.

The performance was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Next up (for me, at least),  Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Sondra Radvanovsky, on March 29.

1 thought on “Tilson Thomas at the Kennedy Center Leave a comment

  1. “This is the first and last Tasso you’ll ever need.”

    Not quite. The best Tasso is, by a far margin, the recording of Constantin Silvestri with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I would go as far as saying that this is one of the two greatest ever recordings of a Liszt tone poem ever made, the other one being Mengelberg’s “Les Preludes.”

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