Wednesday 19 September 2007

From the sublime to the if not quite ridiculous, then certainly much less good (Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans)

It's not fair really. The Bavarians are one of the very best orchestras in the world, and to have to follow them is not a task to be envied. At the festival it fell to Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When I first spotted these two concerts in the programme I rushed to book both, in part because of the relative lack of top visiting orchestral names this year, in part because of the comparative absence of Mahler (though we have arguably been overserved with this composer in recent years). But after such drama and quality of playing, even a very fine ensemble would struggle to impress. I suppose, then, that the SFO deserve a measure of latitude in this regard. For reasons that may become apparent as I write, I feel Mr Tilson Thomas deserves none.

As they sat warming up on Wednesday 29th August, I could hear strains of the opening of the finale of Copland's 3rd symphony, which I ignorantly thought a little odd (since it wasn't on the programme). If I knew more about Copland than what is contained in my Bernstein Collectors Edition boxed sets, I would know that it's lifted from the Fanfare for the Comman Man, which was first up. It was also difficult not to notice that, for the third night running, the Usher Hall's own podium was absent. Mr Tilson Thomas, it seems, requires one that is entirely black (possibly to match his attire) and with no rail. The house lights dim. Nothing happens. Finally he emerges, takes his time bowing, before finally launching into the Copland. And what a tune this is. Tilson Thomas took it loudly, as one might argue a fanfare should be. But there was little variety to his reading. It was loud throughout. In truth, it was rather bland, there is no comparison with the range of emotion Bernstein finds on disc. We then moved onto a piece by Ruth Crawford Seeger, her Andante for Strings. Seeger is, according to the programme note, one of those composers whom history has unjustly neglected. Possibly the performance was to blame, but we didn't feel that history had been unkind. Without the slightest pause we lurched into Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, surely this was not what the composer intended. And what a fun piece this is and the SF orchestra played it well. But, once again, there was not quite enough variety to the reading.

What might be termed the overtures over, we got a concerto: Prokofiev's 3rd piano concert with soloist Yefim Bronfman (of whom I have heard good reports in Beethoven's first concerto with Mackerras) who, in an unfortunate error, does not seem to merit a credit at the front of the programme with everyone else. It's not a work I know, but in my experience Prokofiev isn't dull. Or rather, shouldn't be. Here it was, there was no edge to the orchestra. Contrast this with the finest readings on the LSO's cycle of the symphonies with Gergiev. The balance between soloist and orchestra was very poor too. The Usher Hall never normally has this problem, so I place the blame on Tilson Thomas for riding over the piano. This tracks with the fact that there didn't seem to be a huge amount of communication going on between soloist and conductor. The orchestra's quiet playing (something Tilson Thomas hadn't really asked of them before) wasn't a patch on the Bavarians. The variations in the central movement were truly bizarre, in that they didn't feel the least like a set of variations, so little variety was there in Tilson Thomas's reading, especially in tempi. All in all, it was a major disappointment taking us into the interval. A stiff drink was called for, certainly it couldn't hurt.

The second half was also from Russia, but this time Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony, Winter Daydreams, not that you'd have guessed the title from the reading we got, so lacking was it in any sense of temperature. Tension was missing too. There were some odd orchestral balances, especially with the flutes. Again the orchestra's skill in the quieter passages was an issue. However, in fairness, here at least Tilson Thomas did provide a measure of variation in his approach. The adagio began much more promisingly, here at last was some passion, some beauty. But it was fleeting. The reading soon slipped back into dullness. The scherzo was worse. He didn't really play it like a scherzo, and here his conducting was particularly odd - there would be huge sweeping gestures producing not the slightest audible effect (it should be noted that this was typical of his conducting, but simply more pronounced in this movement). In the finale, Mr Tilson Thomas clearly believed that fast and loud equalled exciting. He was mistaken. This is especially true when the band was unable to hold together at the tempi he selected, as too often it was. All in all, a deeply disappointing evening.

And yet we seemed to be in a minority (though the Herald's Michael Tumulty agreed with us, doling out a mere two stars). There was loud applause (though, had one had a decibel meter, it certainly would have been less than Jansons and his Bavarians achieved). Tilson Thomas flounced on and off the stage in the manner of a man who fancies himself to an unbelievable degree. I was reminded of the film Top Gun: "Son, your ego's writing cheques your body can't cash." We got an encore and he decided to announce it. The one time a conductor needn't have bothered, since the Overture to Bernstein's Candide is rather hard to miss. He talked too much introducing it, one rather wished he'd been influenced rather more by the great man in his conducting. He took it too fast and thus provided no contrast with the lyrical second subject. Again, his orchestra was not always quite up to the tempi he chose.

Yet there was more applause, and more flouncing from Mr Tilson Thomas: he closed by miming that he was going off to bed after this - just in case we were concerned. When I got home I did something I almost never do: went to my CD collection and recreated part of the concert: Bernstein conducting the NYPO for the Tchaik and the Copland and the LSO for the Candide. The passion, the contrast he brought underscored just what had been lacking. The comparison was the more telling given Tilson Thomas's references to Bernstein, his work in San Francisco and encounters with Tilson Thomas when he introduced the encore.

It was, therefore, with trepidation and dramatically lowered expectations that I returned to the Usher Hall on Thursday 30th. In fairness, my expectations had already been knocked down twice before. A few months before the festival, while browsing in a CD shop, I picked up one of Tilson Thomas's Mahler recordings (the 5th) with the San Francisco orchestra, reasoning that as I was soon to hear them live, I might as well hear what I was letting myself in for; the results were not confidence inspiring. Then, there had been my brother's dire reports of Deborah Voigt. But even this could not have fully prepared me for the horror that was in store. Her voice is terrible, hideous even. She is quite unable to sustain long notes, be they low or high, quiet or loud, without cracks or wobbles. She was singing the final scene from Salome, but, to be honest, it was difficult to judge the piece as a whole or the accompaniment, so distracting was the voice. Another conductor might have provided more support, but I'm dubious about the extent to which it would have helped. Personally I feel that it shows some nerve to charge people to hear a singer who has wrecked her voice this completely. However, plenty in the audience disagreed and cheered loudly. I am at a loss to explain why. Often, for example when I find a performance dull and someone else is inspired, I can easily accept that it is purely a matter of taste, but I fail to see how anyone can find these sorts of technical flaw appealing. I was not altogether alone - a number of people did not return from the interval.

The second half could only be better. Though I did wonder if I wouldn't have been wiser to join my brother for Capriccio. After the interval we were given Mahler's 7th symphony. I have been fond of this work ever since I first heard it in concert from Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. They gave a wonderfully coherent performance that completely made sense of this as Mahler's long journey through the night. It was not to be repeated on this occasion. The first movement was rather bland, but more critically it was far too bright and upbeat where a journey into the dark, the unknown, is so much more appropriate. He seemed to have little sense of any big picture (a shame as there are moments in this work were Mahler hints at where he's going). However, it did help to answer one question I had had. How good an orchestra might this be without Tilson Thomas? There are a number of solos in which, unfortunately, the players were in general unflatteringly exposed, the euphonium and first trombone excepted. I should point out something here. When I voiced this view on the Radio 3 messageboard recently I was derided and all but called an idiot since this passage isn't scored for the instrument. I myself was surprised to see it, but I know a euphonium when I see one, and sure enough, after the proms, a former professional trombonist confirmed this. The second movement got off to a poor start too, but the insights into Tilson Thomas's conducting kept flowing: the more complex becomes the score (and in this symphony it gets very complex), the less activity there is from him. Again, in this nachtmusik, any sense of night was as absent as the winter in the previous evening's Tchaikovsky. The off stage percussion didn't work at all, and I was left wishing for Donald Runnicles, who has a wonderful sense for such things. As the scherzo opened he finally seemed to have something to say. But soon things reverted to blandness as he is apparently only interested in the big tunes. There is a wonderful sense of 'things that go bump in the night' when this is well played. Not in this performance. The second nachtmusik was even blander. This movement is bizarre, surreal (with its lute), for me it calls to mind those oddest of dreams that make no sense and come shortly before waking. But Tilson Thomas was going out of his way, or so it seemed, to iron any of that sort of thing out. And so to the finale. One of the toughest pieces that Mahler wrote - the amount going on in the orchestra can make it difficult to hold together coherently (both for conductor and players) and even the great Mahlerian Klaus Tennstedt never fell in love with it. But I adore the daybreak encapsulated in this, with its pastiche of Wagner's Meistersing. Given this team had struggled with speed and complexity, I expected a train wreck here. For the most part it was, though not quite as awful as might have been expected. It doesn't help him that they have in no way earned a daybreak - we haven't been on the long journey through the night, so it is meaningless. The end, where light finally triumphs, was just muddled.

There was loud applause. There were also people leaving. Odd for Mahler in Edinburgh, given it wasn't running long. Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans have not only recorded this, but have won a Grammy. I cannot for the life of me explain why that may be. Especially given the work Abbado has been doing with Mahler of late. As I headed for the pub, I wondered if Finn had had better luck at Capriccio. He hadn't and seemed as in need of libation as I was.

All in all, a deeply disappointing two evenings. And on top of it all sits the irritating Tilson Thomas. His infuriating self-adoration. His apparent disregard for anything not a big tune. His inability to pick tempi his orchestra can cope with or to communicate effectively with them. True, there are worse. Roger Norrington stands unique amongst artists I have seen in that he provoked feelings of physical violence from me (not acted upon, I hasten to add) as he constantly turned to the audience mid-performance, grinning maniacally. I so disliked the experience, I resolved then that I would not attend another concert from him or buy a CD. So, in the grand scheme of things, Tilson Thomas could have been worse, but I certainly shalln't rush to hear him or his orchestra again.

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