Conductor: Michel Tilson Thomas
Cage: The Seasons
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107
Gautier Capuçon: Cello
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Any excuse is a good one to experience the magic of the San Francisco Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas during their annual visit to Carnegie Hall, and this year the additional incentive of finally getting a chance to check out still young and already highly reputed French cellist Gautier Capuçon sealed the deal even faster than usual. Not to mention that, to top it all off, he would be playing Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, which would be a nice change from the much more ubiquitous cello concertos by Dvorak and Haydn.
So never mind the busy week. On Friday evening, I was officially on vacation for the following two weeks, and I could not find a better way to get into a carefree groove than spending it at Carnegie Hall in brilliant company for an eclectic program featuring three musical giants of the 20th century.
John Cage's The Seasons may only last about 15 minutes, but those are 15 efficiently used minutes. Originally written to accompany a ballet choreographed by his buddy Merce Cunningham, it was the composer's first composition for orchestra and it of course did not fail to baffle audiences when it first came out. Nowadays this little gem sounds carefully proportioned, delicately colored, fleetingly melodic and downright beguiling. Handled with meticulous precision and a lot of love by the orchestra, The Seasons opened the concert on a bold and fascinating note.
Dimitri Shostakovich's cello concerto is a truly mesmerizing work, and on Friday night Gautier Capuçon confidently confirmed his well-known command of it. Without any fuss, the cello got busy right away with the main theme and plenty of dark humor for the Allegretto, before the Moderato and its stunningly beautiful long lines took over. Still in a pensive mood, the mighty Cadenza served as a thrilling transition to the last movement and its mercilessly manic race to a breathless ending.
Stepping into the shoes of Mstislav Rostropovitch, for whom the concerto was written, is mission impossible, and Capuçon smartly does not even try. He does not have to anyway. His thoroughly informed appreciation of the work allowed him to make the concerto his own and to deliver an impeccably elegant, assuredly virtuosic and deeply sensitive performance, which was rightfully rewarded by an fervent ovation.
In fact, the ovation was so fervent that it was itself rewarded by a delightful rendition of "March of the Small Soldiers" by Prokofiev, which readily closed the Russian portion of our evening.
After intermission, Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which he composed when he was impoverished, depressed and already ill with the leukemia that would eventually kill him, took center stage, vividly going from brooding somberness all the way to sunny cheerfulness. The orchestra performed it with their customary savoir-faire, brilliantly highlighting the piece's many moods and colors, maestro Thomas constantly making sure that the various sections retained their individuality while still playing harmoniously together.
When this was over, the tireless conductor and orchestra treated the ecstatic audience to a heartfelt gift: “The Alcotts” movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata as orchestrated by Henry Brant. And just like that, we were back in America.