On the second night of their concert series “MTT conducts Copland”, the San Francisco Symphony and Inon Barnatan delivered a hugely engaging night with a fresh programme that kept audiences riveted to their seats. Two of the pieces featured, Orchestral Variations and Inscape are seldom performed, so I was uncertain as to how the audience would respond, but this adventurous programme proved to be just right. An unexpected delight was watching the dynamism of Michael Tilson Thomas as he conducted the SFS, from the very slightest of hand gestures to literal jumping on his podium.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

Copland’s Orchestral Variations was written in 1957, was one of his later works, and was a reworking of his original Piano Variations written in 1930. The result was a dramatic feast of sounds from start to finish, with its four notes motif undergirding each of the variations. Scored for an expansive orchestra with an enlarged percussion section, it was well presented by MTT and the SFS. The playfulness of later variations was captured by the brass and percussion sections and led to the piece’s grandiose coda, before recalling the original theme and finishing with a convincing cymbal crash and heavy brass roar.

Inscape was another work that came from Copland’s later years, a period of time characterised by his fiddling with twelve tone serialism. The word ‘Inscape’ was coined by 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to mean a sudden illumination or a gaining of perception of structure, and Copland’s abstract work certainly lived up to its name. As is typically the case with pieces in this style, it can be difficult to place oneself in the music. However, unlike my previous encounters with twelve tone serialism, I found myself catching a glimpse of understanding as to why Copland chose to employ it in this piece. I attribute this to the brilliant leadership of MTT and the skilfulness of the orchestra, who were able to deliver a measure of expression within chromatic and dissonant harmonies.

Something from much earlier in Copland’s life is his Piano Concerto. Influenced heavily by the style of Jazz, this two movement concerto reflects both the ‘blues’ and the ‘snappy number’. From the outset with the Andante sostenuto, where he entered the piano melody delicately and with an almost improvisatory mood, soloist Inon Barnatan delivered a compelling performance. This movement was sweet and builds up to a grandiose climax before Barnatan entered with his cadenza. However, it was in the second movement, the Allegro assai, where Barnatan truly shone; clearly enjoying himself in the ragtime snappy bounciness of the piece. There were times when the piano seemed to drown under the orchestra but it didn’t take away from the delight of watching Barnatan’s hands effortlessly navigating the rhythmic exuberance of the piece.

Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major was a great feat for Schumann. Written at a time when his mental and physical ailments were becoming more serious, this symphony had a theme of resilience and determination towards healing. This performance was a stellar one and the 35 minutes went rather quickly. Each movement was handled carefully and with respect, and I found it utterly mesmerising to watch MTT conduct. There was definite drive throughout the second movement Scherzo and Trio, which is an achievement in itself; especially for the first violins who played in almost perpetual motion. The third movement Adagio espressivo was especially poignant and the SFS handled this with just the right balance of sentimentality and restraint. The orchestra maintained momentum through the final movement, the Allegro molto vivace, which famously incorporated a tender theme from Beethoven’s Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder. It was a beautiful, jubilant and fitting finish to their performance of a symphony which the audience clearly loved, if their fervent applause and standing ovation was any indication.