Thursday, January 28, 2010
Pulcinella at the San Francisco Symphony
This week's San Francisco Symphony program starts with a conductorless octet for brass and woodwinds written by Stravinsky when he was living in Paris in 1923. It's about twenty minutes of unemotional, cool, and genuinely interesting music. The eight players gave a wonderful performance on Wednesday's opening night, and by the fourth concert on Saturday evening, they will probably be bordering on the extraordinary.
This was followed by a semi-conductorless performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #23, with the Symphony's longtime music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, as the piano soloist conducting from the bench. This was a brave thing to attempt, since MTT isn't ordinarily a concert piano soloist, and he's ridiculously busy with his extensive conducting career not only in San Francisco but around the world.
Mozart is an odd composer for both performers and audiences. Some people immediately understand Mozart in their bones the first time they hear his music, while others have to work at it, or sometimes just decide that Wolfgang isn't their cup of tea. This doesn't have much to do with good or bad taste, since there are both performers and listeners with exquisite musical taste who absolutely don't get Mozart.
MTT has always struck me in the latter group, with performances of Mozart that are enthusiastic, loving but sounding slightly embalmed. I was hoping that throwing himself into the middle of the orchestra as a soloist might free his Mozart up and make it sound livelier like the renditions of his recent assistant conductor, James Gaffigan. In the event, the performance on Wednesday was something of a train wreck, with a moment in the first movement where he seemed to lose his way altogether, and a slow movement so dirge-like I thought the ghost of Kurt Herbert Adler had arisen from the grave.
All was forgiven after intermission, when Tilson Thomas led a great performance by the orchestra and three vocal soloists in my favorite piece of music by Igor Stravinsky, the 45-minute ballet "Pulcinella," a commedia dell'arte piece for Diaghalev's Ballet Russe in 1920 with sets by Picasso. The music is a moderne Stravinsky "re-orchestration" of about 20 short tunes by the early Italian Baroque composer Pergolesi, though it turns out that he only wrote about 50% of the ur-score. It seems that much of Italian music from that period was subsequently ascribed to Pergolesi whether he wrote it or not because his name was an established brand in later decades.
The brass and woodwinds, who had already warmed up at the beginning of the concert, were superb and confident, and they helped lead the orchestra in a fearless rendition of the rhythmically tricky and extremely transparent score where there is nowhere for anyone to hide.
The three vocalists were Sasha Cooke, soprano; Bruce Sledge, tenor; and in a bit of luxury casting, Eric Owens, bass. They were all good, and their trio in the middle of the piece may be the most beautiful thing that Stravinsky ever (re)wrote. Plus, my favorite detail from the program notes by Michael Steinberg: "The eight vocal pieces have nothing to do with the plot; they are part of the scenery, just like Vesuvius, the boat, and the moon."