REVIEW: San Francisco Symphony Opens Carnegie Hall 2018-2019 Season With Style
October 3, 2018
By Brian Taylor
Carnegie Hall’s new season launched with an auspicious gala concert given by the San Francisco Symphony and their music director, and Carnegie Hall's "Perspectives" artist in residence, Michael Tilson Thomas, headlined by superstar sopranos Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald. A festive atmosphere in the air, these fine forces presented an unusually uplifting evening of music.
The program was a treat, and for the most part, displayed the performers at their best. Orchestral music of George Gershwin bookended an intriguing little assortment of songs from the Great American Songbook, with Franz Liszt’s showy Mephisto Waltz No. 1, in an inspired bit of curation, thrown in for good measure. It was an evening of music that brought a smile, achieving the right blend of levity with a just a touch of introspection.
The San Francisco Symphony is one of America’s, and the world’s, finest orchestras. Under MTT’s baton for twenty years, they play with big city swagger. The ensemble’s special balance of polished detail and individual personalities (in solo playing) might be rivaled only by Nezet-Seguin’s Philadelphia Orchestra.
Michael Tilson Thomas, an inheritor of Leonard Bernstein’s conducting legacy, with a comparable pedigree as an educator, is clearly at ease in his role as, arguably, America’s most eminent conductor. In an interview in the printed program, he reveals that his father actually knew George Gershwin, and the connection is perceptible; on the podium, he exudes confidence interpreting Gershwin’s music. The band sounds well rehearsed. Conductor and orchestra speaking the same language, only the subtlest of cues elicits a response. He trusts his players, frequently letting them groove along without intervention, guiding their music-making with seasoned style.
Gershwin’s Cuban Overture from 1932, a celebration of the rumba, but really, a celebration of life, was a vivacious opener. San Francisco's exceptional trumpet section shines. The piece's slower, flavorful middle section featured splendid woodwind solos, and the beguiling string section summoned warm Caribbean breezes. Tilson Thomas knows how to manage Gershwin's thicker orchestral textures.
Contrasting that with Gershwin at his most lyrical, Audra McDonald joined the orchestra to sing the evergreen "Summertime" (from Porgy and Bess). She’s lived with the song (she won the Tony award for the role of Bess on Broadway in 2012), and it shows. She adds her own embellishments, making it fresh, emphasizing a spontaneous quality in the song. Renée Fleming then sang the classic Aria from Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos'sBachianas brasileiras No. 5, her voice a layer of cream atop delectably rich low strings.
At first glance, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 might seem an odd fit for a program otherwise concerned with Americana. But somehow, it fit; the musical depiction of a cautionary story about ambition, Faust's pact with the devil, sounded ominously American. The sole Romantic-era, and European, selection also served to broaden the program's scope enough to make it a genuine survey of the San Francisco Symphony's range. I wondered, though, if its inclusion implied a subtle message. An un-subtle message was later delivered in a duet, a medley of Stephen Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," in a clever arrangement by Rob Fisher, colorfully orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin.
Another contribution by Coughlin was included last minute, a Pops-style arrangement of Laura Nyro's "Save the Country." It felt a bit whimsical, but it was fun to see McDonald and Fleming let their hair down, so to speak, and its heart was in the right place. The musical feast culminated in an electric account of Gershwin's inspired tone poem An American in Paris, both bustling and poetic.