San Francisco Symphony

and Michael Tilson Thomas

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2013/14

Friday 14th March

Symphony Hall

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conductor

St Lawrence String Quartet

Ives (arr Brant) The Alcotts from A Concord Symphony 6’
John Adams Absolute Jest for Orchestra and String Quartet 27’
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique 49’

Encore – Copland – Saturday Night Waltz

America is a land of new perspectives; and under its dynamic music director Michael Tilson Thomas the San Francisco Symphony has built a worldwide reputation for innovative programming. Tonight they present a fresh take on music by Charles Ives, a true American original, before teaming up with the St Lawrence String Quartet for John Adams’s vibrant new quadruple concerto (you can listen to a short extract from the piece here). And to finish, Berlioz’s spectacular Symphonie Fantastique – music that never stops sounding new.

In the video below, Tilson Thomas gives an exclusive introduction to the works featured in the concert.

Oliver Condy, Editor of BBC Music Magazine explains why he has recommended tonight’s concert:

During his time at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas has transformed his orchestra into perhaps the finest in the US. His energy is thrilling, and his passion for the American music he’ll be conducting will doubtless be palpable. As for the radical Berlioz? He and MTT were made for each other.



Michael Tilson Thomas talks to Christopher Morley:

Click here for full article

…     ”   “For me, making music is a journey I like to compare to going to a park. You may know the park, you know the trails. But the company in which you find yourself has a great effect on the nature of that journey.

“Over many years having walked these trails in these symphonies with my colleagues in San Francisco there’s a sense of ease of our ability to turn our attention to one thing or another while having the big objective of the journey in mind.”     ”   …



Review by John Quinn, MusicWeb, SeenandHeard:

Click here for full review

…     “After a good deal of busy music a brief, slower section dominated by the quartet, initially accompanied by tuned and un-tuned percussion, seems to act as both slow movement and cadenza. The orchestra becomes involved in this slow episode after a while and the music then accelerates into hyperactivity in a way that put me in mind of Shaker Loops and, later, of Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The work seems to be heading for a tumultuous end and then, in a masterstroke, Adams cuts off the quartet and full orchestra and the last word – a quiet one – is provided by the deliberately mis-tuned piano and harp.

I enjoyed Absolute Jest greatly and I’m impatient to hear it again. So far as I could tell on a first hearing it received a fabulously virtuosic and committed performance from both the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the orchestra. I was delighted to see that the Birmingham audience gave the piece a very warm reception.

After we’d all got our breath back during the interval Tilson Thomas conducted a work that he says is in his bone: Symphonie Fantastique. This is a score tailor-made to show off a virtuoso orchestra and that was achieved here. However, I mustn’t give the impression that MTT treated it as a ‘mere’ showpiece for such was not the case. The introduction to the first movement was shaped delicately and with great finesse in the playing. The different hues of Berlioz’s amazingly original scoring were expertly realised. When the main allegro was reached the reading was lithe. The San Francisco woodwinds had ample opportunity to show their agility and the strings were capable of great dexterity without ever sacrificing their natural sheen and lustrous tone.

The waltz was elegant and graceful, though I would have loved it if the two harps had been positioned on either side of the orchestra instead of side by side: Leonard Slatkin does this on his recent recording and the results are wonderful (review). Tilson Thomas ensured that the waltz was moulded winningly, the music always light on its feet. There was much marvellously nuanced playing in a highly atmospheric account of the Scène aux champs. Here was poetry but always allied to expert technical control. I’ve heard some other conductors impart a touch more menace into the March au supplice, usually by adopting a slightly more deliberate tempo than was chosen here. The march was quick-ish but even if it lacked a degree of menace it was still powerfully projected.”     …



Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph

Click here for full review

…     “The piece from Ives was actually risky in a different way. Entitled Alcotts, a   movement from the Concord Piano Sonata as orchestrated by Henry Brant, it   began with a modest flute solo, like a half-remembered folk-tune. Below, a   choir of clarinets cushioned the tune; above, strings floated like morning   mist. To capture that dewy immaculate sound and to still an audience into   rapt concentration at the beginning of a concert is a difficult feat, but   they pulled it off. A less showy opening to a tour would be hard to imagine. 

How effortful and busy John Adams’s recent Absolute Jest seemed in comparison.   Adams is at pains to explain that his piece, which makes a lot of hectic   play with scraps of Beethoven tossed between a solo string quartet and the   orchestra, is definitely not a joke. He means “jest” in the sense of the   Latin “gesta” meaning deeds or exploits. Now when a composer starts playing   with Beethoven’s sublime late quartets and burrowing into Latin   etymologies, he’s clearly making a bid for the high ground. You have to sit   up straight and pay attention.”     …



Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “It was almost a magnificent Symphonie Fantastique. The ball scene was elegant with the orchestra’s high strings silkily seductive and the pastoral episode was illuminated by a beautifully- played duet of cor anglais and magically distanced oboe.

In the march to the scaffold, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas wisely refused to rush, giving the movement an atmosphere of grim inexorability. The witch’s sabbath cackled wickedly with some ripe and saucy wind playing, trenchant brass and an impressively thunderous timpani contribution which brought the evening’s loudest ovation.

But Thomas’s approach in the opening movement was too mellow and level-headed, not adjectives appropriate to Berlioz especially in this work, and instead of languorous despair and fervid elation we merely had meandering thoughts and slight pique.”     …


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