Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Concert review: In San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas conjures up a multi-media vison of Beethoven

Photo: Stefan Cohen
Who: The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Pacific Boychoir
What: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis
When: June 11-13, 2015
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

Opening night of Michael Tilson Thomas's remarkable "visualization" of Beethoven's towering "Missa Solemnis" with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soloists, and the Pacific Boychoir last weekend (June 11-13, 2015) stirred up some real passion among us members of the Music Critics Association of North America, who were in town for our annual conference. Not all of it was positive.

Some of us felt that the semi-staged performance—with its dramatic lighting, video projections, scenic design—helped to clarify and enhance our ability to appreciate the composer's complex musical architecture. Others dismissed it as flashy gimmickry and criticized Mr. Tilson Thomas as trying to "improve" on Beethoven. Personally, I fall somewhere in between, but find myself leaning heavily towards the "clarify and enhance" school.

Soloists, L-R: Shenyang, Joélle Harvey,
Sasha Cooke, Brandon Jovanovich
Photo: Stefan Cohen
For me, this somewhat audacious bit of re-interpretation served as a reminder that the "Missa" is polyphonic music—and not just because of the composer's frequent use of counterpoint and other composition techniques that are a deliberate tribute to Bach, Handel, Lassus, and other composers of what Beethoven would have considered "ancient" music. No, this is polyphony in the root sense of the word in that it involves many different sounds occurring simultaneously.

That includes obvious uses of polyphony like the complex fugue on the words "in gloria Dei Patris. Amen" in the "Gloria" but also, to my ears, extends to the juxtaposition of sharply contrasting textures like the noisy "battle music" that pops up in the middle of the calls for peace in the "Agnus Dei."

It also applies to the different sound worlds that Beethoven conjures up. This is music that looks back to the counterpoint of the Baroque but also forward to the massive sound blocks of Bruckner. It's both ancient and modern, reverent and raucous. It's a dessert topping and a floor wax.

Sorry about that.

Photo: Stefan Cohen
All joking aside, this really is dense and profound music. So if some of Mr. Tilson Thomas's fiddling with Beethoven's score might appear to be a bit sacrilegious—most notably the addition of a boy's choir and the reassignment of some of the music to different parts of the chorus or to small solo groups—I'm inclined to forgive it simply because it does such a good job of communicating the conductor's vision of the work and of highlighting those varied sound worlds.

There were so many theatrically effective moments in this concert that I haven't the space to list them all here. They included the explosion of light on the video screen suspended above the chorus that preceded the opening D major chords of the "Kyrie"; the rush from the wings of the boys' chorus for the beginning of the "Gloria" and the video images of letters showing down like meteors; the recurring image of a cathedral constructed entirely of words; and the soloists comforting each other on the words "miserere nobis" ("have mercy on us").

Soloists from L to R: Sasha Cooke, Brandon Jovanovich,
Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik,
Joélle Harvey, Shenyang
Photo: Stefan Cohen
For me, though, the best coup de theatre came in the "Benedictus." There's an extended passage here for the concertmaster, but rather than have Alexander Barantschik play it from his chair in the orchestra, Mr. Tilson Thomas had him move up to the small staging area in front of the chorus, where he was joined by the four vocal soloists. It turned their quartet into a quintet, which Mr. Barantschik singing his part on his instrument—and doing so impeccably. It was a beautiful image, both visually and aurally.

Of course, none of this would have worked as well without the superb playing of the orchestra and spectacular singing by the chorus and soloists. This was my first opportunity to hear the SFSO live and I was impressed by both lean perfection of the orchestral sound and the excellent acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. The chorus, in particular, deserves some sort of award for singing so precisely and so well while coping with all of the choreographed movement required of them.

Soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Brandon Jovanovich, and bass-baritone Shenyang not only gave fervent voice to Beethoven's music, but also proved capable actors in their staged moments. This was a "Missa Solemnis" that did not in any way neglect purely musical values.

Photo: Stefan Cohen
That's not to say that there weren't moments when I found some of the theatrical elements distracting. The overly literal video images that illustrated parts of the "Credo," for example, felt a bit cartoonish to me. But overall I think Mr. Tilson Thomas found a way to communicate his passionate vision of this often-difficult music in a very 21st-century way while still honoring the music and its 16th and 17th-century influences. It's not a definitive "Missa Solemnis" by any means, but I wouldn't have missed it. Judging from the response, neither would the audience.

For information on upcoming concerts, visit the orchestra's web site.

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