Friday, June 05, 2009

A Schubert/Berg Journey

MTT conducts A Schubert and Berg Journey
Wed, Jun 3, 2009 8:00pm Davies Hall
San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas
conductor and pianist

Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings, D. 438
Julia Fischer, violin

Altenberg Lieder, Opus 4
Laura Aikin, soprano

Rondo from Lulu Suite

Piano Sonata, Opus 1
Yefim Bronfman, piano

The Shepherd on the Rock
Laura Aikin, soprano
Michael Tilson Thomas, piano
Carey Bell, clarinet

Lulu Suite
Laura Aikin, soprano

I was glad for the chance to hear these great Berg pieces, but the overall program made no sense to me. It felt like there were 4 different concerts going on at the same time & that I spent the evening switching between them. Even though it was a full night of music, I didn't feel like I'd actually heard one whole concert.

The Schubert Rondo, with a chamber orchestra of 16 strings, was our chance to hear the clean & graceful playing of Julia Fischer. I liked her long, smooth bows & tasteful interpretation. Laura Aikin, in a green dress which would not have been out of place in the Art Deco 30s, gave a confident performance of the highly compacted Altenberg Lieder. She landed those impossible high notes at the end of the 3rd & 5th songs without a fuss. In the 1st song it was sometimes difficult to pick her voice out from the busy orchestration, but that may have been Berg's fault for writing her low notes in the middle of the orchestra. The 1st half ended with a rambling performance of the 1st movement of the Lulu Suite.

After intermission, Yefim Bronfman strode quickly out on stage followed by his page turner & immediately plunged into the Piano Sonata with a fluid legato that almost made Berg sound like Chopin. He played deep into the keys, & his involvement was intense, with clearly placed climaxes. I thought it was the best performance of the evening, & a handful of people stood for him, including a fellow rush ticket holder seated next to me, a young man who studied the program assiduously, never left his seat & took notes. I suspected him of being a blogger.

On his first entrance in The Shepherd on the Rock, Carey Bell's narrow, refined clarinet sound emerged hauntingly from silence. He's a wonderfully musical player & never seems to play a phrase the same way twice. He made his role in no way secondary to the soprano.

The program ended with Aikin & the orchestra coming back for the rest of the Lulu Suite. Since the piano for the Sonata was still on stage, MTT gallantly retrieved the bench so that Aikin could sit on it between her duties. MTT seemed to be going for orchestral clarity in his interpretation, but I found it a bit aimless. Aikin was dramatic & fearless in the 2 vocal sections. In the last movement she even stood up, doubled over & gave us Lulu's terrified & animalistic death scream.

The back of orchestra where I was sitting seemed fairly full during the 1st half, but there was major attrition after the intermission. A couple in the row in front of me conspicuously walked out during the Piano Sonata, & the rest of the row pretty much emptied as the 2nd half progressed.

Other Views
The Ambassador has weighed in with his reactions. Joshua Kosman heard much he liked & was able to make connections. The Civic Center felt bludgeoned.


Immanuel Gilen said...

You always seem to make a point of audience attrition for concerts with Second Viennese School music. Is this because you're surprised that so many people don't share your great taste in music, or converserly because you're surprised that you seem to like something that so many people despise?

Axel Feldheim said...

Interesting question. Are those the only choices? My primary point is that, despite its historical importance, the 2nd Viennese School remains a big flop with audiences. I don't have any expectation that others should like the same things I do, though I'm glad that Berg is being offered. I think Berg is the best of that bunch, but he also cheats just enough so that the music is beautiful & moving.

Gavin Plumley said...

There is a great difference between clever programming and downright schizophrenia. Of course the lieder share a heritage, but the instrumental music set in relief is probably not the way to go. One of the best bits of programming I ever encountered was:

Johann Strauss: Kaiserwaltz
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Berg: Violin Concerto
Ravel: La Valse

Truly extraordinary to set the Strauss (and the Ravel) against those other scores. I have to disagree about the 2nd Viennese School remaining a big flop with audiences. WOZZECK here at Covent Garden was sold out immediately after its 5 star reviews (though LULU remains a harder sell). Read my recent review of Ingo Metzmacher in Berlin... he made the Schoenberg seem infinitely more approachable than the supposedly more digestible Mahler.

Axel Feldheim said...

That La Valse program does look juicy & much more coherent, as does the Aufbruch 1909 series. Perhaps you Londoners & those Deutschers are a more sophisticated audience, but here I feel that audience tastes are pretty conservative. I can't recall hearing any Schoenberg other than Verklärte Nacht or Pelleas und Melisande at the SF Symphony in years. Mahler is quite popular here, because of the on-going recording projects. However, there are many cases in which I would rather hear Schoenberg than Mahler.