Last night Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the annual Opening Night Gala to launch the 2017–18 season in Davies Symphony Hall. The featured guest soloist was cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Traditionally, music has taken a back seat to fashion, fine dining, and a vigorous party spirit on opening night; and this season was no exception. Nevertheless, there were still a few moments to please the silent minority there for the listening experience.
The greatest reward came from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 (first) cello concerto in A minor. In spite of Ma’s superstar status, he never establishes an impression that suggests anything other than his being there for the music. The Saint-Saëns concerto certainly provided him with opportunities to display his virtuosity; but the deeper impression left by both Ma and MTT was how tightly-knit this concerto is. The structural plan follows the usual three-movement architecture; but there is a continuous flow from one movement to the next and a third movement that reflects back on the opening. Given that Saint-Saëns was not always at his best when working with large structures, Opus 33 stands out as a significant (and relatively early) achievement.
The result was an interpretation that was as comprehensive as it was expressive. This was the part of the evening that reminded us all of how significant an asset SFS is, not only for its own merits but also in its ability to working with visiting artists. Sadly, that impression received relatively little attention for the rest of the program. Opening the program with the overture to Candide established that the over-arching theme of the season would be Leonard Bernstein at 100. MTT gave this a rousing account to direct the party-goers’ attention to the stage; but it was a reading whose sparkle did not suggest the underlying wit.
By the time the intermission had elapsed and the audience was ready for the second half, much of that sparkle had faded, even with the return of Ma to play Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33 “Variations on a Rococo Theme.” If Saint-Saëns’ concerto was a moderately long piece that felt as it it flew by like lightning, each of Tchaikovsky’s variations felt as if it would go on forever. One gets the impression that Tchaikovsky never really put his heart into the piece, which may explain why the cellist who first performed it, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, made major alterations to the score. As the program book observed, Fitzenhagen’s version is now taken as the “standard” one; and only a few cellists (Steve Isserlis being one of them) have gone back to what Tchaikovsky himself wrote. Last night left the listener wondering if some contemporary cellist might do contemporary audiences a favor by doing unto Fitzenhagen what Fitzenhagen had done unto Tchaikovsky.
Once again the Gala program concluded with Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro.” This time it was given a “media treatment” with color mood lighting and white spotlights to highlight all the different instrumental soloists. For this particular piece, the effect served almost as an alternative to score-reading for those who did not know music notation. However, while these individual moments played out absorbingly, it felt as if MTT had lost sense of the gradual crescendo that underlies the entire architecture. The result was a conclusion that was more of an anticlimax than the mind-shattering “shift of gears” that Ravel had conceived. Perhaps, once the familiarity of “Boléro” had been established, all minds (on stage and in the audience) were already preparing for the party that would follow.
The one oddity of the evening was MTT’s salute to philanthropist Bernard Osher, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. (MTT gave another one of his litany-of-the-resumé asides to explain why he had missed the birthday party.) MTT honored Osher with a short composition which amounted to some highly embellished counterpoint for a reduced string section played against the cantus firmus of “Happy Birthday,” which MTT sang while Christian Reif conducted the strings. Now even those who squeaked by with a “gentleman’s C” in beginning counterpoint can tell you how bad “Happy Birthday” is as a cantus firmus; but the string writing was still thoroughly engaging. Besides, it’s the thought that counts!