Since 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas has been the Music Director of the San Francsisco Symphony. In that time, he has taken this ensemble, which has always been very good, and confirmed it as one of the best orchestras in the United States, if not globally. To me, the SFS’s reputation precedes it – I have an excellent recording of them in the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto with Zoltan Kocsis as soloist and Edo de Waart as conductor. It has pride of place in my small collection and my expectations were therefore high.
MTT, as he is known, did not need to give much direction in Faure’s “Pavane”. No baton for this one, a nod here, a hand gesture there, the orchestra knew this piece as do we all. Nothing much needs to be said save for the fact that it was a lovely, gentle start to this concert showing off the richness of the strings in particular.
On that point, Sergei Rachmaninoff, amongst others, commented that he preferred American orchestras to European ones for the quality of their sound and on this performance alone, you could easily understand this comment. Where, say, the London orchestras are a touch dry in sound, the San Francisco Symphony has a rich, glossy elegance which is not overworked, has a ton of depth like an excellent wine and rich quality in all of its sections. It’s a rich pleasure to be enveloped in this quality of sound.
While Sibelius’ 3rd Symphony is not perhaps the sort of piece that you might say was a good example to show off an orchestra, it does demand careful attention to the nuances and dynamics. There are a lot of themes going on in this more-or-less classically structured symphony and they are not as loud and romantic as Sibelius’ First or Second symphonies which are closer to the late Romantic models of Tchaikovsky and his ilk. MTT’s directions were precise and the orchestra’s output was equally precise. Every detail was brought out throughout, with the second movement nocturne a particular highlight – you heard a lilting, charming grace and simplicity from the woodwinds offset by the constant pizzicato melody from the cellos providing the darker colours to this deceptively simple sounding movement. No thematic detail was lost or submerged, this was carefully nuanced and structured ensemble playing of the highest order.
The majority of the audience were here to listen (and see) Yuja Wang perform Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto. I mention ‘see’ because Wang herself has cultivated an image of a fashionista pianist, having successfully carried several recitals in high heels. She did not disappoint the San Francisco audience with a tight-fitting, long red dress which got a few wolf-whistles from the audience.
Now I deliberately mentioned the Kocsis recording for good reason – in looking at benchmark or recommended recordings, this one is cited from time to time and with justification. Surely, Yuja Wang could match this performance with equal brilliance and style ? Apparently not. From the opening notes, there seemed to be an air or timidity or possibly a little too much introspection. The piano did not seem to be on an equal footing or besting the orchestra as it should and while the cadenzas and the statements of theme were all right, there did not seem to be the frisson of energy you would normally expect to see and hear from this piece. That was only accentuated with passages taken deliberately slower, even held back, than one might expect and sometimes quite deliberately and suddenly – Wang was definitely putting her own stamp on the piece. But did it fit ? Well, the audience thought so, giving her a rapturous and sustained standing ovation. Did this deserve a standing ovation ? I didn’t think so. While there was little wrong with Wang’s technical execution of the concerto, the cumulative effect of these odd interpretations had really got to me. I stayed firmly in my seat.
Wang’s encore was another matter entirely – Art Tatum’s transcription of “Tea For Two”. A challenge for any pianist classical or jazz-trained, Wang carried this off brilliantly in Tatum’s effortless and free-improvisational style. I sighed in frustration – why did she not bring the same level of technical ability and interpretative brilliance to the concerto ? It would have been an outstanding concert if she did, well worthy of a ‘standing o’.