San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus (Vienna)


My parents’ old friend, the irrepressible Erich Leinsdorf, would have called tonight’s interpretation of Mahler’s 3rd in the Konzerthaus by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony “interesting.”  While it began with a thoughtful concept, ultimately it did not convince.

Tilson Thomas took the introduction to the first movement much more slowly than usual and with more trauma.  The percussion and double basses provided a broken heartbeat in the background, while the brass played bitterly, clearly shaped by Tilson Thomas’ motions.  This led into the march at normal speed, representing Summer marching in.  Tilson Thomas’ summer clearly was not the hot sunny type, but rather full of storms.  The percussion kept the underlying march going, while the winds held back otherworldly and detached above, so that while the feet marched the head filled with melancholy.

The first movement actually worked.  The problem came that Tilson Thomas did not know where to go from here.  The next movements developed along the same lines.  But the tutti playing became altogether gooey and sentimental, while the solo lines gave contrast with detached sadness.  In the end, the woodwinds simply could not keep up the pretense, and lost their angst without finding relief.  This left the concertmaster and the brass alone keeping the alternate mood going.

Mezzo soloist Sasha Cooke gave a strong and haunting account in the fourth and fifth movements, but Tilson Thomas completely buried the choral parts (sung by the women from the Vienna Singakademie and by the Vienna Choir Boys), blending their voices into, and under, the orchestral music.

For the final movement, perhaps Mahler’s most mystical adagio, Tilson Thomas once again resumed the extra-slow tempo.  In doing so, he gave the orchestra a shimmering icy sound more appropriate for Sibelius (like Mahler, also a fan of and inspired by Bruckner, although having a distinct sound).  After the first horn entrance in this movement, the tone reverted to something more Mahlerian, but here the gooey sentimentality of the orchestral playing made the music more sappy than transformative.  The orchestra also tired, as evidenced by some missed cues and wrong notes.  And if Tilson Thomas wanted to take it slowly, he should not have made the playing so staccato, which further demystified the music.

As a final nail, Tilson Thomas did not hold the silence at the end, bringing his arms down right as the last note ended, thus making contemplation impossible.  The Vienna public certainly knows not to applaud until the conductor releases, but in this case Tilson Thomas did not hold at all.  The applause came politely, with some well-deserved huzzahs for Cooke, the concert master, and the principal trombone, trumpet, and horn during their solo bows, but otherwise everyone else just received some polite clapping.

In the end, while Tilson Thomas can get credit for originality, he may not have thought this one all the way through.  Or maybe the enlarged forces of the San Francisco Symphony normally sound this gooey (if so, then Tilson Thomas should take the blame for that, too, since he has served as music director of this orchestra since 1995).

Armenian Philharmonic, Khachaturian Hall


Eduard Topchjan decided to introduce Armenia to Mahler’Lied von der Erde this evening, in the work’s premiere performance in this country.  With Topchjan on the podium, the Armenian Philharmonic made a valient effort.  However, it was perhaps a bit too ambitious for this orchestra.  They actually sounded good (if not always together, as usual), and Topchjan kept his speed and stick technique deliberate.  But the orchestra members all had frightened looks on their faces as their eyes darted between their music stands and Topchjan.

Individually, they actually did quite well on the whole, but the entire piece missed an overall feel, with no lilt or angst, as appropriate.  The soloists both had pleasant bittersweet voices.  Veteran northern Irish mezzo Zandra McMaster clearly has sung this before, whereas the young Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan may not have. In these circumstances, the lack of experience helped, as Avetisyan sounded more fresh and excited.  McMaster lacked emotion, and her sections tended to drag.

Speaking of ambition, perhaps Das Lied was a bit too ambitious for the three-year-old (or thereabouts) in the seat next to me.  She was well-behaved to start, but by an hour in she was crying uncontrollably.

Armenian Philaharmonic, Khachaturian Hall

Bizet, Gounod, Beethoven

Two weeks after my father died, I decided it was OK to start going to live concerts again.

I have long noted that only its principle conductor Eduard Topchjan seems to make the mediocre Armenian Philharmonic sound good.  I have suspected, though, that this might be because he does not schedule good guest conductors.  So tonight I got to hear what would happen if a truly excellent guest conductor took the podium: Pavel Kogan, whom I have seen at the helm of his Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, came to Yerevan.

The orchestra responded beautifully to him.  Even the normally-creeky strings produced full and nuanced tones.  Although not everyone always managed to play together, they still did far better than they normally do under guest conductors.

The concert opened with the suite #1 from Bizet’s incidental music to L’Arlésienne, in a reading which emphasized the music’s often-hidden peculiar inner harmonies and the melodrama sufficient to remember that Bizet wrote the music to augment a drama.

In contrast, the ballet music from Gounod’Faust was far less dramatic, because it never belonged in the opera to begin with.  Gounod had interpolated it into the opera only to fulfill the Paris Opera’s absurd ballet requirement.  So while the music did not portray drama, it still needed to dance, and Kogan had the orchestra dancing appropriately.

After the intermission came Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.  Although not programmatic, this symphony has great drama like all Beethoven symphonies, albeit more subtle.  Kogan knew how to draw out the drama that, when hidden, makes this symphony not well-understood.  The symphony, which starts slowly and quietly, springs to life in a way a mediocre orchestra might not manage.  This one managed tonight.

Only a very small audience showed up, but everyone knew what they had heard.  So did the orchestra.  Smiles all around and a standing ovation for Kogan from audience and orchestra.