San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Schubert (arr. Webern), Six German Dances
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5
I had an enjoyable, if slightly unbalanced, evening at the San Francisco Symphony last weekend. It was my first experience seeing the orchestra live and in their own hall. Although I often hear mixed things about MTT’s work with other orchestras (I have seen him conduct great Ives in Chicago and Shostakovich at Tanglewood, but apparently the CSO and NY Phil are not huge fans), he is clearly at home in SF. The issues that Chicago and New York musicians seem to have with him—fussiness over details during rehearsal—are probably responsible for the highly-polished performance I heard last night. What started as a fairly standard, muscular reading of Beethoven’s Fifth turned into a excellent performance because of an exquisitely balanced slow movement, with fantastic blend between winds (although through the entire piece, trumpets were a bit too loud) and gorgeous string tapers at the ends of phrases. Ax played an elegant rendition of the Fourth Piano Concerto, unfortunately the last work on an extremely long first half (over an hour of music, with the Fifth after intermission).
But I want to focus on the programming of this concert. On paper, it looks very good: Schubert through the eyes of Webern, Webern’s aphoristic Symphony, and two masterworks by Beethoven. Critics and scholars might praise MTT’s “smart” programming--that he juxtaposes a “difficult” modern work with music of the same Austro-German lineage of which Webern felt himself a part. The Berlin Philharmonic has been doing a similar thing recently on their tour, juxtaposing works of Brahms and Schoenberg, a seemingly natural pair due to Brahms’ influence on the latter composer (Schoenberg’s famous essay “Brahms the Progressive” is essentially a justification of his own techniques by showing modernist aspects in Brahms) and Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor. I heard Berlin (under Simon Rattle) perform Brahms’ Second Symphony, the Meistersinger overture, and the full-orchestra version of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony in Chicago last month. It was a fantastic concert, although I strongly prefer the Chamber Symphony in its original chamber orchestration.
But back to the issue of programming: Schoenberg and Webern certainly would have loved their music being juxtaposed with works by the great masters---Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert. They saw themselves as carrying the torch of the First Viennese School, merely continuing the stylistic evolution of Austro-German music. But I question what the lay listener, someone who is not familiar with the (theoretically) teleological progression of Bach-Mozart-Beethoven-Brahms-Mahler-Schoenberg, thinks of these juxtapositions. MTT gave a brief introduction to the Webern Symphony, making a compelling comparison of its geometric logic to the paintings of Piet Mondrian. This context seems more apt than sandwiching it between Schubert (even if the Schubert is an exercise in Webern’s orchestration skills) and Beethoven. Although pairing Schoenberg with Brahms, or Webern with Beethoven, may seem like a great idea, and is typically rewarded with positive reviews which praise the conductor’s or musician’s keen insight, it does not always work. Critics may say that hearing Webern’s Symphony before Beethoven’s Symphony gives some kind of modernist insight into Beethoven (“We can hear the modernist strains in Beethoven which gave way to the later development of twelve-tone technique”), but I doubt that even an educated audience member would hear that. Joshua Kosman seems to agree.
Jimmy has done admirable work of pairing Schoenberg and Beethoven, even opening up Tanglewood in 2006 with the Chamber Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth. But this juxtaposition really doesn’t work. Just because they are both great composers and Schoenberg saw himself as a successor to Beethoven, does not mean that the works reflect well upon each other (especially with an intermission in-between). Levine has done a number of strange programs recently. I think the best way to give a non-specialist audience member insight into the forbidden Second Viennese School is to program their music with works by either later composers, or immediately earlier composers. If one were to pair the Chamber Symphony with Mahler’s Fourth (even better if it’s the chamber orchestration), I think the audience would get more out of the Schoenberg. Webern’s Symphony with Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde could work as well. A recent university orchestra concert I attended programmed Webern’s Passacaglia with the Berg Violin Concerto and a Zemlinsky symphony. One could really understand the sound-world of Berg’s twelve-tone Romanticism in the context of the earlier, Mahlerian Passacaglia (the Zemlinsky was a bit of a dud).
Back to MTT and the performance last night. I appreciate that he programmed the rarely-performed Webern symphony and that he treated it in the same category as a warhorse like Beethoven’s Fifth. The audience seemed to enjoy it, I’m sure because of his introduction, but I really doubt that its placement between Schubert and Beethoven gave it the best hearing. A performance this work would be great between, say, Webern’s Im Sommerwind and a Mahler symphony. The music resonates more when it reflects upon its immediate past than on a musical history a hundred years old. Or program forward, in the manner of Esa-Pekka---set the Webern as the “warhorse” and add later music—if you want to stick with the German romantic-historical angle, perhaps Bernd Alois Zimmermann or Wolfgang Rihm.
Sometimes the massive-historical-lineage programming does work. A Berlin Phil concert I watched online (their Digital Concert Hall is amazing) last year had Peter Eötvös conducting Bach choral preludes (arr. Schoenberg), Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and Zimmermann’s Requiem für einen jungen Dichter after intermission. Because the Zimmermann actually reflects on the German lineage of music and quotes Wagner (among others), the sense of teleology/history is palpable to the listener and not just the critic. And the Zimmermann was clearly the meat-and-potatoes part of the program.
I will have more thoughts in the future about inventive programming. The New York Phil under Gilbert is doing a similar pairing of First and Second Viennese Schools in a couple weeks, with Mozart, Webern (Im Sommerwind and the Symphony), and Schumann--I hope to attend. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks in New York, which include Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dirge at the Park Avenue Armory and the first performances of the NY Phil’s new Contact series.