Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas gave the last of the three programs previewing the music to be performed during the SFS seven-city tour of the United States. Those with an interest in dates may have noticed a striking feature in how this final program was arranged. As was the case with the program performed earlier this week, the second half consisted entirely of the complete score that Maurice Ravel composed for the one-act three-scene ballet “Daphnis et Chloé.” The printed program gave 1912 as the date for this composition. More specifically, Ravel completed it on April 5, 1912, and the ballet was first performed the following June 8.
The top of the program page indicated that the performance would begin with Samuel Adams’ “Drift and Providence,” given the date 2012. More specifically, the work was first performed on April 20, 2012, almost exactly 100 years after Ravel had completed his ballet score. Presumably, exactly 100 years prior to that premiere, Michel Fokine was hard at work rehearsing Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the premiere of his new ballet.
The “bookends” for this program thus seemed designed to encourage the attentive listener to think about how modernism has changed (and not changed) over the course of a century. Both of these compositions draw heavily on the resources of a full orchestra. Thus, while their respective approaches to instrumentation differ significantly (particularly when considering Adams’ use of electronics and his spatial approach to percussion), they share a common aesthetic stance in the pursuit of a “grand” sound. Furthermore, Adams seems to share with Ravel a “linguistic” approach to music that favors suggestion over declaration. It is too soon to hypothesize about whether Adams may be bringing a “new impressionism” to contemporary music; but the rhetorical toolbox that enabled his evoking different neighborhoods of San Francisco had much to share (in spirit, if not entirely in substance) with Ravel’s evocation of a pastoral setting.
As a result, while Ravel’s score was just as stimulating and exciting as it had been earlier this week, the context of Adams’ music encouraged the attentive listener to consider the related techniques of expressiveness shared by these two scores.
Between these two piece MTT programmed a strikingly different kind of modernism, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 violin concerto (his second) in G minor. Prokofiev worked on his concerto through much of 1935, making it one of the last pieces he composed before moving back to Russia in the spring of the following year. At that time he was quite the traveller, but his base was Paris. Indeed, he was another one of the many composers that Diaghilev recruited to compose music for his Ballets Russes.
As a result Opus 63 reflected many of the brash qualities of modernism that Diaghilev tended to encourage. However, at the same time, there is an almost sentimental lyricism lurking behind many of those spiky dissonances and sinuous chromaticism. Last night’s soloist, Gil Shaham, clearly appreciated these two contrasting sides to the concerto. What was most striking about his interpretation was that he could embrace each without compromising the other.
Mind you, Shaham has set for himself a major project in documenting performances of violin concertos composed during the 1930s; and the first two-CD set of recordings for this project was released this past February. Prokofiev is not included in this volume, but the five concertos that are included cover a broad spectrum of expressiveness. Shaham clearly has great affection for this decade, and he has backed up his enthusiasm with both technical and scholarly insights. Those insights were just as evident in last night’s approach to Opus 63, providing the concerto with a right and proper place between the “temporal extremes” of the full program.