San Francisco Symphony conductor’s showmanship augments his musical skills

I was inundated with mixed emotions.

Maximal joy at being able to watch Michael Tilson Thomas conduct four pieces that provided contrasts as distinct as snowflakes falling on shiny black wingtips.

And a tinge of sadness caused by knowing the maestro will hang up his baton in June 2020.

I projected myself into that future and knew I’d miss his enticing showmanship every bit as much as his musical virtuosity — like the exuberance he displayed the other night while guiding Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a.”

The composition, most popular of four overtures Beethoven composed for Fidelio, the renamed lone opera he ever wrote, is stylistically rhythmic (as might be expected).

Michael Tilson Thomas

Not to mention intense, loud and dramatic.

Highly entertaining nonetheless.

One moment MTT was swinging like a Hall of Fame batter connecting with a fast ball; the next, he’d be bouncing up and down like an ecstatic six-year-old on a trampoline. Mostly, though, his arms floated elegantly as if they were on fluffy white clouds.

All audience eyes were perma-glued to him, of course — except when many turned to locate the pure melodic strains of a horn that drifted from the balcony.

Or when they stared at the huge bright yellow tuba mute that resembled a miniaturized spacecraft.

Pianist Emanuel Ax. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

The 73-year-old conductor — adopting his most Leonard Bernstein-like, accessible but professorial tone — later labeled the most fascinating work of the evening, the four-sectioned “Piano Concerto, Opus 42” by American composer Arnold Schoenberg, “a mini-symphony…a big piece” (despite it lasting merely 20 minutes).

And he asked piano soloist Emanuel Ax to perform a few bars as if the concerto by the man who’d perfected the 12-tone system was a Viennese chamber melody, making it simpler for listeners to relate.

All Manny’s exquisitely executed notes appeared to be effortless, though many in the almost-filled auditorium were aware he still practices four hours a day although he’s successfully appeared on world-class concert stages since the early ‘70s.

At its discordant peak, the Schoenberg piece zapped me into a personal time machine, back to my teenage years more than six decades ago when I frequently heard jazz pianist Thelonious Monk at a tiny club in Manhattan, his fingers extracting unique sounds from places I was erroneously certain then were “between the keys.”

Laura Stanfield Prichard delivers pre-concert “Inside
Music” talk at Davies Hall. Photo by Woody Weingarten.

Before the intermission, Ax had smoothly soloed on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449.” The 68-year-old Ukrainian-born U.S. citizen, dressed totally in black, played with his usual panache — gracefully, pleasingly.

In her pre-concert “Inside Music” introduction to the evening’s program in Davies Hall, Laura Stanfield

Prichard mentioned that classical composers had toiled on five-octave instruments while today’s eight-octave pianos are “much more expressive.”

Ax, whom I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of as he rehearsed some of Schoenberg’s more difficult, more dissonant passages in the Green Room, proved the point.

Not incidentally, the fourth and final piece on the program was Richard Strauss’ breezy, playful “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Opus 28.”

Another delightful contrast, in my view, to each of the other three compositions.

Upcoming MTT performances with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, include Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto from Feb. 8 to 10; Mahler’s Fifth from March 22 to 25; and Mussorgky’s “Boris Godunov: A Semi-Staged Event: from June 14 to 17. Information: (415) 864-6400 or www.sfsymphony.org. 

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.