Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Last night I attended a concert by the San Francisco Symphony that was billed as “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony” but which also included Schubert’s Six German Dances D. 820 arranged by Anton von Webern, Webern’s Symphony, Opus 21, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58, featuring the renowned Emanuel Ax on piano.

I must first say that I found the programming (i.e. the selection of pieces) to be an interesting and somewhat odd collection, especially for a concert during the holiday season (when more of the audience is likely to be less hardcore symphony-goers).

In fact when StarkSilverCreek alerted me to the opportunity to attend the concert I checked sfsymphony and saw “Beethoven’s Fifth” as the concert title—which made me assume it would be a “chestnuts” (well-known pieces) concert—and was surprised upon clicking through to the full program to find that Emanuel Ax would be performing! I was a bit dismayed to see such a world-class artist hidden behind the mass-market billing, but was nevertheless excited to have the opportunity to see him perform live for my first time.

Schubert Six German Dances, D. 820, arr. Webern

The concert opened with the Schubert Dances. I was surprised at first to see Michael Tilson Thomas (known affectionately as “MTT”) conducting with no baton and with the score – the first time I’ve seen him conduct not from memory. I cynically first thought that this must be because it’s a “light holiday concert” until I noticed in the program notes that it’s the first performance of the piece by the SF Symphony.

I had never heard this piece before and found it to be pleasant, almost chamber music-like in its feel (the orchestra was slimmed down in size for the piece with, for example, only 4 cellos instead of the usual 8), and with beautiful color contrasts between the strings, winds, and brass due to the orchestral arrangement by Webern. When the piece concluded I remarked “it was like having sorbet before dinner.”

Webern Symphony, Opus 21

And then it was time for something completely different. Webern pushed the boundaries of the art form we call music and was part of the “Vienna Trinity” (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) who pioneered “Composition in Twelve Tones” – an entirely new approach to composition that almost all listeners find challenging. Thankfully, MTT preceded the performance of the piece with one of his trademark talks, where he gave a brief explanation of the structure of the piece, how its different thematic lines are woven together (complete with illustrations by the orchestra), and what to listen for. MTT pointed out that this form of music really makes us ask questions about the differences between music and other art forms: “If this piece were a painting, people would line up around the block to see it… but because it exists in time it will always be more ephemeral and abstract.”

I am a big MTT fan, but no more so than when he gives these little talks. I find him engaging, educational, and approachable—and yet not one bit condescending. His complete love for the music enables him to deliver his deep knowledge in a way that transmits his joy to the audience, and really enhances the overall listening experience during the ensuing performance.

I was struck by his almost-extreme curved finger positions and his usage of a great deal of vertical hand motion—which usually leads to a pronounced detached (notes separated from each other) sound—and yet he created masterful phrasing and legato.

The piece, as promised, was quite challenging to understand and follow (at least for this listener), but his talk made it less abstract than otherwise. But I must say that I found the choice to include a twelve-tone piece in a program featuring the warhorse of warhorses, Beethoven’s Fifth, to be curious. Was this MTT’s way of taking advantage of a likely less-hardcore audience to stretch their musical horizons?

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58, Emanuel Ax, Piano

Frankly, this was the reason for my attending the concert. While it’s not the most-played of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (No. 5, “The Emperor”, is probably the most-played), it is by far the most lyrical, and I was personally excited to see Emanuel Ax perform this piece (I will admit to being a big fan of his).

We were fortunate to have stage-left seats, giving me an excellent view of the piano keyboard and Ax’s fingers and technique. I was struck by his almost-extreme curved finger positions and his usage of a great deal of vertical hand motion—which usually leads to a pronounced detached (notes separated from each other) sound—and yet he created masterful phrasing and legato. There were some special moments with beautifully controlled rubato at certain cadences which were well-coordinated between the piano and the orchestra—with clear chemistry and visual synchronization between Ax and MTT.

MTT conducted without baton (as he did the Schubert and Webern) and drew a milky lyrical sound out of the orchestra – and there were moments when I was vividly reminded of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony – and then he and Ax created a beautiful transition into the development (middle) section of the first movement. Ax performed the cadenza (piano solo in an improvisational style) arpeggios, scales, and trills (all of which are technically challenging) with nice clarity—I was impressed by his control of the pedal. But most impressive was his control and phrasing during the cadenza—I almost felt like we had departed from a concerto and were being treated to a performance of a piano sonata. That said, I found myself wanting just a little more—a little more drama and show – from Ax, even I found nothing lacking from the music he was creating.

The second movement is truly pastoral and Ax and MTT delivered. The concerto closes with a third movement that I can only describe as “lyrical exuberance” – not your pull-out-the-stops Beethoven finale, but more high-energy-wrapped-in-a-lyrical-envelope. I found myself grinning after the piece was finished—and happy to have finally seen Ax in concert live.

Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67

Yes I’ve heard this piece (as have you) a million times. So many times that one is tempted to cynically roll one’s eyes and say “OK and now for the warhorse”. And yet there’s nothing more exciting than seeing a world-class orchestra perform live and for a conductor whom they obviously respect so much. I often try to gauge the musicians’ engagement with the music, the performance, and the conductor—and I have a little rubric I use. I look at the concertmaster (first violin, first stand, outside chair) and see how much bow he’s using – and I compare that to the second violin, last stand, inside chair (the most junior violinist in the orchestra). In most orchestras playing a “chestnut” for the hundredth time, boredom sets in, and you’ll see the people in the back “phoning in” the performance—and it shows up in the fact that they don’t use very much bow. But EVERYONE in the string sections was completely engaged. I was particularly struck by the viola section during the fugue in the 3rd movement; they were playing their hearts out!

Yes this piece is played a lot, maybe too much, and yes it received a predictable standing ovation from an enthusiastic crowd. (NOTE: for fun, I HIGHLY recommend you enjoy one of my favorite recordings—P.D.G. Bach (Peter Schickele) “New horizons in music appreciation”— a very funny baseball-announcer-type broadcast of a performance of Beethoven’s 5th. You can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0vHpeUO5mw) But even this jaded concertgoer found himself enthralled by the energy, the power, and the majesty of Beethoven’s writing.

And then I stood in line to get Emanuel Ax’s signature on his CD.