Yo-Yo Ma returned to San Francisco for the final round of Project San Francisco concerts by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, and with him Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the Davies Podium. The program had a strong Russian emphasis with Ma performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s second cello concerto, Opus 126 in G major, and the second half of the program consisting of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s second symphony, Opus 17 in C minor, given the nickname “Little Russian” by Tchaikovsky’s acquaintance, the music critic Nicolai Dimitrievich Kashkin. Apparently by way of compensation for the dreary mood that El Niño has brought to San Francisco, with at least five fronts of heavy rain descending on the city one after another, Thomas added a cheerful introduction to the evening, the polka from Shostakovich’s Age of Gold ballet, before launching into the first San Francisco Symphony performance of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 73 “aquatic” (water-logged?) tone poem, “The Oceanides.” As James Keller observed in the program notes, this work departs from many of our expectations for Sibelius, including his selection of Ancient Greek, rather than Finnish, mythology; but it is just as unconventional as the result of an American commission initiated by Yale composer Horatio Parker in 1913.
While Sibelius may have been out of place in both nationality and genre for this program, “The Oceanides” revealed itself to be a fascinating composition. It is hard to resist comparison with Claude Debussy’s La Mer (composed about ten years earlier); and, in his review of the premiere (in Norfolk, Connecticut) in the Boston Post, Olin Downes even seemed to prefer it to Debussy’s exploration of a similar theme. More important however, is that Thomas’ command of intricate detail within large orchestral resources has paid off in his past performances of La Mer; and it paid off just as richly in his approach to both the overall texture and the many subtle gestures that give life to “The Oceanides.” Like many composers in the early twentieth century, Sibelius was never shy about full-out orchestral composition; and the San Francisco Symphony welcomed his boldness leaving the feeling that this is music that deserves further listening in future concerts.
Both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos were dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich; and, as I have previously observed, Rostropovich’s world premier performance of the second (with Shostakovich in the audience) was recorded and is included in the Complete EMI Recordings box of Rostropovich releases. Shostakovich may have outlived Joseph Stalin (unlike Sergei Prokofiev); but he could never outlive the paranoia induced by Stalinism. So he had little to say explicitly about this music, but it is a highly intense affair. Whether or not in contains any of the “autobiographical codes” that may (or may not) be found in other compositions from his late period, it is almost impossible to give this concerto a dispassionate reading; and the chemistry between Ma and Thomas was such that the performance was very much one of an almost unbridled emotional outpouring.
Those who arrived early for the Pre-Concert Chamber Music recital experienced an interesting preparation for this concerto. This half-hour program was arranged by visiting violinist Colin Jacobsen, a touring member of Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and featured the “Prelude In Memoriam Dmitri Shostakovich” by Alfred Schnittke. Composed in 1975 this is very much the reflection of another composer who, like Shostakovich, always had to contend with the dangers of going against the grain. The work is an extended violin solo, performed by Jacobsen, heavily exploring the instrument’s capacity to support contrapuntal (and sometimes percussive) composition. That solo then summons the “ghost” of another solo violin line, played in the darkness of the rear of the stage by Nadya Tichman, that echoes much of the opening material. The ghost is neither comforting nor frightening. It is a simple fact of auditory experience, just as death is a simple fact of life. Jacobsen began his program with a capable reading of the chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s D minor partita, BWV 1004, and concluded with an arrangement of Persian folk music for string quartet, bass, and percussion; but the Schnittke offering was the high point, serving as a rhetorical exordium to prepare the ear for its encounter with Shostakovich himself.
Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” symphony, on the other hand, is more exuberant celebration than intense introspection. Here again we have the full force of the orchestra but more for its instrumental variety than for the subtleties of Sibelius and Debussy. From the strong chord that introduces the first Ukrainian folk tune (“Little Russia” once being an affectionate name for the Ukraine, although I doubt that this affection persists today) to the wild folk dancing of the final movement, this symphony is, more than anything else, a dazzling journey through instrumental diversity. Those who think they have “heard it all” in Tchaikovsky have not appreciated the ways in which he can play orchestral sections against one another (probably because they get distracted by all the heavy action in the percussion section, which, without any doubt, certainly is heavy). Thomas exhibited a comprehensive command of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral technique, and he has clearly communicated his understanding to his ensemble. The El Niño deluge was still with all of us leaving Davies that night, but for almost an hour Tchaikovsky and Thomas had helped us to break through that persistently bad weather.
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