How to put over a fierce piece of music

The visiting San Francisco Symphony tackles a dense, atonal work by Berg, explaining it carefully and giving it an impassioned performance.
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Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas

The visiting San Francisco Symphony tackles a dense, atonal work by Berg, explaining it carefully and giving it an impassioned performance.

Those wanting a break from the excitements of President Obama'ꀙs Inauguration and choosing not to see it all again on the evening news could instead go to Benaroya Hall where the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra gave the first of two concerts under its musical director Michael Tilson Thomas. They appeared as guests of the Seattle Symphony. Some 2,000 people took up the opportunity, and were rewarded with an interesting program finely performed.

The second half was devoted to a performance of Brahms'ꀙ first symphony, and it was evident from the powerful introduction that Tilson Thomas and his players were embarking on an interpretation that spared nothing of the work'ꀙs grinding dissonance and driving power. Particularly notable was the unanimity, flexibility, and richness of sound from the string section, which projected the contrapuntal lines around the opening timpani pedal with unusual strength and resonance. Overall the symphony was given a vigorous and dramatic performance with the heroic final climax very well judged and the inner movements given with warmth and sympathy.

The concert had begun with Aaron Copland'ꀙs 'ꀜOur Town,'ꀝ a suite he made from the music for the film of the same name. This was an agreeable if somewhat formless piece. Film scores converted into concert pieces often lose their connection with the movie'ꀙs narrative and can seem repetitive and lacking in direction. So it was here.

What followed could hardly have been a greater contrast to the somewhat anemic Copeland and the open, assertive Brahms. Alban Berg'ꀙs 'ꀜThree Orchestral Pieces,'ꀝ Opus 6, composed around 1915 in Vienna, form Berg'ꀙs first extended orchestral composition and one of the finest by any composer in the Viennese atonal style. This is complex, dense music covering extremes of dynamics, texture, and feeling. The music of the 'ꀜSecond Viennese School'ꀝ — Schoenberg, Berg and Webern — is infrequently performed in Seattle, and it requires and repays close and careful listening.

We were doubly advantaged in our approach to the music on this occasion. There was an outstandingly good program note. And Tilson Thomas, after a diplomatic but obviously much appreciated reference to his Orchestra'ꀙs pleasure in visiting Seattle and playing in its renowned Benaroya Hall, spent 10 minutes talking us through the work, with illustrations from the players.

Preparatory talks from the podium can be hugely helpful to audiences if they are done right, as Gerry Schwarz has shown at many Sunday afternoon concerts. Tilson Thomas did it right, illustrating with simplicity and charm the thematic links between the three parts of the composition, the musical languages it employs, and its relationship to the disordered times in which it was written.

The performance itself was extremely accomplished — the music is very hard to play — but above all convinced and impassioned. It seems to have been an unacceptably fierce experience for some members of the audience (I saw a small handful of people leave) but for the most part it was received with interest and appreciation. By an accident of timing, Seattle Opera in February will present a double bill of one-act operas written at around the same time as the Berg — Duke Bluebeard'ꀙs Castle by Bartok and even more adventurously the beautiful and mysterious but rarely performed Erwartung by Alban Berg'ꀙs teacher Arnold Schoenberg. For those open to powerful new musical and dramatic experiences, this will be unmissable.


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