Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op. 72a
Mackey: Eating Greens
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 25 in C Major, K. 503 - Jeremy Denk
Copland: Symphonic Ode
The San Francisco Symphony and I have had a regrettable history of repeatedly missing each other. Whether I have family obligations or they go on strike, or other impediments get in the way, getting together in the same concert hall had seemed like mission impossible... until last Wednesday, when the stars finally aligned and we all converged to Carnegie Hall for the first of their two nights there.
So the perspective of finally getting to hear this highly regarded orchestra conducted by their music director, the ever-cool MTT, was of course tremendously exciting, but truth be told, the deciding factor of my being there was first and foremost the singular pairing of adventurous pianist Jeremy Denk and über-classical composer Mozart. Among a program democratically divided between the Viennese past and the American present, that would have to be the highlight of my evening.
Beethoven's third Leonore overture, by far the most popular one among the four in existence, is actually much more than a prelude to a stage drama. It is a superb musical work in its own right, full of operatic grandeur and human emotions, which powerfully encapsulates all the passions at play in Beethoven's one and only opera, Fidelio. The orchestra's muscular performance of it unequivocally confirmed that they had been worth waiting for and kicked off the evening with a vigorous punch.
In sharp contrast to this bona fide classical opening, Steven Mackey's Eating Greens was a whimsical tribute to modern life made of numerous interconnected auditive snapshots. The work may be occasionally tongue-in-cheek, but it does not lack ambition, with, among others, high-brow references to Matisse, Ives and Thelonious Monk, but also everyday occurrences such as traffic noises and even a chuckle-inducing old-fashioned phone off the hook (Those were the days). Starting with formal church bells and ending with a playful harmonica, the orchestra gamely ran the 20-minute gamut of eclectic sounds, which eventually all came together in surprising harmony for a refreshingly unusual adventure. The audience seemed to good-naturedly take it all in and rewarded musicians, conductor and composer, who was in attendance, with warm applause.
After intermission, we were back on solidly Viennese territory with Mozart and his Piano Concerto No 25. The last one of his twelve major piano concertos, it may not be the most popular, but its treasures of emotional depths make it a truly remarkable piece. At Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, the piano's gentle entrance quickly expanded into intricate harmonies and engaged in a delightful and engrossing conversation with the orchestra. Jeremy Denk's superb playing was perfectly in tune with Mozart's refined elegance and subtle expressiveness, always deeply respectful of the sheer beauty of the composition and free enough to make it his very own.
Back in the contemporary US, the last work on the program was Copland's Symphonic Ode, for which the full orchestra and then some filled up the stage. Although it is rarely performed in concert halls, it was one of the composer's favorites among his œuvre. I tend to associate Copland with loudness, and the opening of Symphonic Ode couldn't but reinforce this idea with trumpets, trombones, horns, and soon the whole orchestra. But there were some wonderfully elegiac moments as well, interspersed between explosions of bouncy, odd and catchy flights of fancy inspired by Mahler, Stravinsky, his love for jazz, his Jewish heritage and his Parisian days. A grand voyage that left orchestra and audience exhausted, but happy.
We stuck around with Copland with a high-energy "Hoe-Down" from Rodeo as the much appreciated encore. A big gulp of fresh air straight from the American folk tune repertoire, which concluded the evening on a resoundingly upbeat note.