Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, audiences had to wait until after the intermission for the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), to finally hit its stride. However, the ensemble did so with a vigorously expressive interpretation of Robert Schumann’s Opus 38 (“Spring”) symphony in B-flat major. Composed over the course of four days in January of 1841, this was the first of the four symphonies he would write; and it filled the entire second half of last night’s program.
Between 1832 and 1839 Schumann had been particularly accomplished (and inventive) in writing for solo piano. He developed a fascinating style in which he would collect short pieces into a single integrated composition structured around a common thematic idea. One wonders if he might have been impressed enough with the song cycles of Franz Schubert to take a similar approach in his solo piano writing. If that is the case, then his writing for piano prepared him for his own ventures into song cycles, leading to what has come to be known as his Liederjahr (year of song) in 1840. By 1841 he was ready to turn his attention to the orchestral ensemble.
Of the four symphonies, Opus 38 is the most conventional in structure. Having honed his expressive skills on both the poetry for his songs and the imagery behind so much of his solo piano music, he seemed willing to pour his new poetic wine into the structural conventions of a symphony that had served his Viennese predecessors (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Schubert) so well. However, those conventions never diminished his sense of poetry; and, in the proper hands, Opus 38 presents us with the same level of ebullience that makes so much of Schumann’s piano music sparkle.
That qualifier, however, is important. Schumann’s orchestral scores provide an acid test for conductors. There are those who pick up on that ebullience and elicit it from the ensembles they lead, while others get bogged down in what they mistakenly take to be tedium. Fortunately, MTT is in the former category, perhaps because there is so much ebullience in the personality he presents to most of those who encounter him.
There is also a tendency to criticize Schumann for never quite understanding how to blend the sonorities of an instrumental ensemble. However, MTT always seems to be able to find the right levels of balance across the sections, bringing a clarity to the delivery that serves rapid tempi as well as the more introspective slow ones. Opus 38 is distinguished in the battery by adding to the timpani a single percussion instrument, a triangle. Schumann uses this bell-like sonority sparingly, as a skilled painter might apply some particularly dazzling pigment; but, under MTT’s sense of balance, those moments provide just the right amount of sparkle to capture the triumph of spring over winter.
Sadly, the path leading to this delightfully informed and impressive performance was not a particularly pleasant one. It involved a traversal through Johannes Brahms’ Opus 77 violin concerto in D major that seemed to lack all of the qualities that made the performance of Schumann’s symphony so special. Much of the difficulty can probably be attributed to soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose approach to technique was, at best, variable and whose expressiveness was sadly limited. MTT, on the other hand, seemed to approach the orchestral writing as if it were there only for accompaniment, rather than the threads of a fabric that would weave in with the lines of the soloist. The result was routine when at its best, and Mutter’s playing was beset with several audible problems of intonation when she was not at her best.
Brahms definitely deserved better. Nevertheless, Mutter is good at showmanship; and there was no doubting her appeal to the audience. She rewarded her admirers with an encore, the Gigue movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo partita in D minor. Her rapid-fire delivery, however, seemed more in the diabolical spirit of Niccolò Paganini than in the dance form behind this movement, which Bach seemed to enjoy as much as a dance as he did as music.
The program began with the first SFS performance of John Luther Adams’ “The Light That Fills the World.” Actually, this was the first SFS performance of any composition by Adams. Given that this particular piece was first performed in 1999 by the Paul Dresher Electric Chamber Ensemble at the Yerba Buena Forum and that Adams’ music has been performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the fact that it should have taken SFS this long to get around to bringing him into repertoire is more than a little disconcerting. Furthermore, this particular composition is chamber music, scored for bass (played in this case by Steven Braunstein on contrabassoon), marimba (Jacob Nissly), vibraphone (James Lee Wyatt III), keyboard (shared by Jonathan Dimmock on portative organ and bass players Stephen Tramontozzi and Charles Chandler), and violin (Alexander Barantschik). The ensemble was conducted by Christian Baldini.
Adams is as much a naturalist as he is a composer. Many of his compositions take natural sounds as a point of departure from which he can then explore the possibilities of blending instrumental sonorities. “The Light That Fills the World” deals primarily with the lower register, the violin being the only real exception while marimba and vibraphone combine to provide a hushed texture as background. Sadly, much of Barantschik’s delivery seemed to be hesitant, if not uncertain when double-stop playing was required. As a result, the attentive listener could ascertain the sort of “environment” that Adams had in mind while recognizing that the actual performance never really came up to realizing that environment. Furthermore, the music felt so out of place in a Schumann-Brahms program that one could only wish that it had been situated in a better context, one in which, at the very least, the mindset of the performers could have been better prepared to undertake the execution.