For last Sunday’s concert, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony chose a programme with a distinctly Eastern European flavour spanning almost a century and a half. They began with Liszt’s Prometheus, an overture to a set of choral pieces Liszt wrote for a festival celebrating the life and works of German literary philosopher Gottfried von Herder in 1850.

Michael Tilson Thomas,  ©  Bill Swerbenski
Michael Tilson Thomas,
© Bill Swerbenski

The orchestra effectively captured the work's many mood changes. From emphatic rumbling of the timpani and cellos at the beginning – clear statements of the distress of a heroic figure – to quiet moments of contemplation and tranquility, the orchestra played with conviction and control. Bouts of tempestuous struggle and final triumph were boisterous but not overwhelming.

An eclectic mirrorball of tones, rhythms and colours, Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a challenging work for both players and audience alike. Not only does it stretch the limits of the soloist’s virtuosity and the interaction between soloist and orchestra, but it also demands unwavering attention from the listener, to disentangle the multiple strands of the patchwork. Scored for only twenty-odd players, the work is perhaps more appropriately described as one for a large chamber ensemble.

The first three movements were played together, with the solo violin starting sheepishly with a very soft tremble, blossoming into bolder discourse with members of the orchestra. The soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, kicked off the second movement with a wailing melody of despair, eventually launching into a pizzicato frenzy, with ocarinas and swanee whistles chirping in the background. The solo violin opened the Intermezzo with material similar to the second movement, but only more shrill and harsh in colour, quickly plunging with the orchestra into an anticlimactic abyss.

The fourth movement, a passacaglia, featured the chromatic scale, rising into ear-piercing shrieks, and abruptly deflated by the brass. In the final movement, Appassionato, a Balkan folk tune played at varying tempi on different instruments built up to a crescendo that sounded as if it would conclude like a traditional romantic work, only to dissipate rapidly into nothingness.

Ligeti is said to have put “fragility and danger” as a footnote to the score of the concerto. Mr Tetzlaff and the orchestra certainly kept up the tension to vindicate the fragility, but the orchestra was too composed by comparison to be edgy, hence not quite realising the danger.

For Tchaikovsky, the process of creating his Symphony no. 1 was arduous, enveloping him in anxiety-induced insomnia; and its path to first performance was tortuous. The relative ease with which the orchestra delivered a charming and elegant account of the work spoke nothing of the pain that Tchaikovsky endured in its creation. Staying faithful to the concept of “daydreams” in the work’s subtitle, the tone was soft and suggestive of youthful naïveté.

The first movement, subtitled “Dreams on a Wintry Road”, opened quietly on soft murmuring strings and gentle woodwinds, presenting a landscape of crisp whiteness and the sweet smell of fresh air. The road looked pretty and easy enough. As it progressed, though, the mood became darker and more serious, almost to the point of a struggle, before settling back into the brightness of the opening and relative calm.

The second movement, which Tchaikovsky described as “Land of desolation, Land of mists” consisted mainly of one haunting theme introduced with tenderness by the oboe and the flute. Despite the subtitle, desolation was never in sight – apprehension, perhaps, but certainly not desolation. Just as it appeared that the woodwinds and strings had exhausted themselves and were about to launch into a new theme, the horns intervened with a repetition of the thematic material to bring the movement to a close.

Tiring of subtitles, Tchaikovsky gave the third movement the conventional description of “Scherzo: Allegro scherzando giocoso.” Throughout this delightful movement, there were traces of sweeping dance tunes that would find their way into his later works for ballet.

The bassoon opened the final movement with a rather ominous theme. The dark mood became more sombre with the lower strings in pizzicato, until the brass broke through the gloom with a celebratory declaration. After a short interlude of doubtful shuddering, the strings finally succumbed and joined the brass in a crescendo of optimism.

The San Francisco Symphony chose an innovative mix of works for the afternoon, but delivered few surprises in the performance. With a little more risk taking, it could have added that much more spice to works which in their own time tested the limits of prevalent conventions.

San Francisco SymphonyAlan Yu reviews Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony playing works by Liszt, Ligeti and Tchaikovsky.4