The Prickle (@ThePrickle) September 28, 2019
If Stravinsky is jazz then this programme given by the San Fransisco Symphony was akin to three pieces of Igor’s avant-garde experimentation sandwiching a ‘standard’ in the form of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major.
Michael Tilson Thomas is fairly certain that Canticum sacrum has only received one other performance in San Fransisco in the last 20 years and that he also conducted that one at Grace Cathedral. That previous venue famously has a labyrinth set into the the floor and there is a parallel quality to winding your way through this Renaissance-influenced piece. There is peculiar and alluring interplay between organ, brass fanfare and choir. This tryptic focus is then passed to harp, flute and tenor (Nicholas Phan) then opened and developed still further by bassoon, trombone and bass. There are hanging phrases, begging to be nudged into a resolved state which are then pushed back and teased on the edge once more. The Amen is both curious and confident — perhaps a meditation that in life maybe all we can be certain of is uncertainty.
If there were nooks and crannies to be explored in the first piece of Stravinsky, the presentation of the second revealed some quite remarkable harmonic interpretations of text. With the San Francisco Symphony Chorus —directed by Ragnar Bohlin— filling the stalls above the orchestra, the words being sung from the Symphony of Psalms were projected on the wood paneling alongside them. This demonstrated Stravinsky’s playful response to the text readily apparent throughout this journey of spiritual scepticism. While conventional church-worthy phrases such as ‘Praise him for his mighty acts’ and/or ‘praise the Lord’ were assigned clashing, uncomfortable note combinations, all of Stravinsky’s love was reserved for mentions of music. ‘Praise him with the sound of trumpet…with the timbrel and choir…with the strings and organ’ all received the full warmth of the orchestra and chorus’s harmonic range. San Fransisco’s approach to illuminating text —projecting in both senses of the word— is an example that was educating, simple and one many others could/should follow.
With so much crammed into the first half of the concert, the second was a more forgiving affair. San Franciscan Oliver Herbert was a clear hometown favourite and while MTT largely left him to get on with Haydn’s cello concerto he did so with a resourceful approach to facial expression, carried home the almost sing-along popularity of the third movement. With Herbert taking on the responsibility of this segment, Tilson Thomas was allowed time to recharge and brought all of this renewed energy to the closing piece of the evening, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. It’s such a rare privilege to witness a conductor shape the piece of a great composer who was part of their musical education — this was one such evening and a reminder that Tilson Thomas conducting Stravinsky is always a musical experience worth making time for.
Photo credit: Grittani Creative LTD