Over the past two years, many of the world’s great orchestras and chamber ensembles have participated in Carnegie Hall’s 125 Commissions Project as they have passed through New York to introduce new works into the canon. It would only seem fitting for Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, who “champion the creation and performance of new music” according to their press page, to seize the moment to present audiences with a fresh composition. Instead, the Maestro and the musicians of San Francisco, joined by cellist Gautier Capuçon, took the opportunity to highlight modern, post-war orchestral works in their first of two nights in Stern Auditorium.

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

The public often envisions John Cage as an aleatoric, anti-musical composer, sometimes even dubbing him a philosophical elitist, but this could not be further from the truth. As he began collaborating with choreographer Merce Cunningham in the late 1930s, early '40s, he notated works like The Seasons, which could almost ring the American Populist bell; by today’s standards, the music sounds quite normal and nearly tonal. The four movements, each with a short prelude, toss fleeting melodic ideas throughout the orchestra’s sonic environment to create straightforward landscapes. The first movement, Winter, is defined by a descending two-note trumpet call and clarinet response, followed by a flute solo, that expounds the predominate wait associated with that season. This sense of longing and loneliness, however, perpetuates most other seasons in the work, even though each season hopes to express its own identity: spring/creation, summer/preservation, and fall/destruction. Maestro Tilson Thomas conducted the movements with strict, albeit stiff in some instances, control, and the performance nearly achieved the freedom of movement dancers live for.

Before meeting Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in Moscow and journeying across the United States on a joint-State Department cultural exchange in 1959, Shostakovich composed his first Cello Concerto for the legendary Mstistlav Rostropovich earlier that summer. Capuçon’s performance of the concerto was not pretty, but his interpretation was uncommonly artistic. From the first four notes of the composer’s “DSCH” theme, Capuçon emphasized the pointillated quarters with superb anti-legato bowing to convey the pugnacious character. As he buzzed each note, the clarity and direction of his tone was vibrant and gratifying. Capuçon’s selective use of vibrato in the second movement’s evocative melody was highly effective, and San Francisco’s chamber-sized orchestra reacted intuitively as they held to a committed awareness of the soloist’s sound. The lone horn, who spent much of the piece calling out for a response from Capuçon’s bow, was the defining success of this patient cooperation. Capuçon executed Shostakovich’s devilish cadenza, which joins the second and final movements, with engrossing pace before diving straight into the bombastic finale. Capuçon concluded his segment by charming the audience with Piatigorsky’s transcription of Prokofiev’s March from Music for Children, both witty and engaging.

Emphasizing the new virtuosity of the modern orchestral musician, Bartok’s magnum opus Concerto for Orchestra ranks highly among the great works of the early modernists. The musicians of San Francisco radiated under Tilson Thomas’ baton, as he is so fond of highlighting important details with sharp cues. The bass section, in tandem with the flutes, led the seductive introduction, emblematic of Bartok’s “Night Music” style, and the notorious “Game of Pairs” was especially compelling because one could really applaud each section individually, especially the bassoons(!), as they executed their featured snippets so diligently. The Maestro conjured a distinctly passionate Intermezzo and led the orchestra to flashy conclusion of the final Presto.

Tilson Thomas was quick to grab a microphone at the end of the performance to announce the encore, Henry Brant’s transcription of the third movement of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata “The Alcotts,” and to explain how the piece made him a proud American. Glittered with luscious wind chorales and stately open harmonies, the short movement was enough to spark curiosity for a performance of the entire transcription.