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Two musical geniuses plus one stage equals one ‘wow!’

Pinchas Zukerman

There’s only one word to describe my watching two classical music geniuses on the same stage.

Breathtaking.

Whenever I’ve seen Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve thought not only of the countless hours of exacting rehearsal that went into each piece, I’ve thought of ballet — because MTT’s movements can be as elegant and lissome as those of the best principal dancers.

The other afternoon was no different.

Except that when I simultaneously watched the 69-year-old Pinchas Zukerman prompt his violin into a gamut of emotions at Davies Hall, I experienced the notes — especially his amazing arpeggios and stirring passages that ranged from lyrically sweet to nearly frenetic — as pure and rare as snowflakes falling on Mt. Tam.

I don’t believe human beings can achieve perfection but I do believe Zukerman — who may not be as popular as Itzhak Perlman, who I’ve seen several times with the orchestra — comes so close to it that I can’t recognize the gap.

With solemn concentration etched onto his face, most evident when he finished and broke into a huge smile, he stood throughout Ludwig van Beethoven’s 42-minute, “Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 61,” an 1806 work that advance publicity heralded as having been “deemed ‘unplayable’ by critics due to the composer’s demand for an almost untouchable level of virtuosity for his solo violin.”

During momentary rests, Zukerman lovingly stared at and fondled his bow — analogous to the way my eyes fixed on him in unconditional admiration.

Though my wife and I had heard him many times via recordings, we’d never before seen him in person.

Our echoed reaction to his solo brilliance was pithy and undeniably non-scholarly:

“That was a wow!”

The audience, consisting disproportionately of post-70 fans, rose in unison for a standing ovation, clapping heartily not for extra bows but in hopes of an encore that didn’t happen.

They still couldn’t stop raving about the concert as they left the auditorium, chatting, among other things, about the Beethoven piece first having been played by Franz Clement, a former ex-teen prodigy who purportedly commissioned it and then debuted it without rehearsal.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts work by Gustav Mahler. Photo by Kristen Loken.

MTT, who’s made more than 120 recordings, may best be known for conducting Gustav Mahler compositions, but he’s also gained a reputation for interpreting avant-garde material from modern composers such as Aaron Copland and Steve Reich.

Not to mention the poly-stylistic Charles Ives.

In fact, Ives’ 31-minute “Symphony No.4,” with all its rhythmic complexity, comprised the first half of the bill.

The conductor, after citing the universality of poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” suggested the audience think of the composition “as an environment…a ride… big and visionary music that has stood the test of time” — and cited the fact that Ives had included “songs of all the peoples of the world…seemingly in conflict…merging” in a single work.

A paragraph in the concert program indicated that an earlier, 1927 note “gleaned from conversations with the composer” described the musical collage as consisting “of four movements — a prelude, a majestic fugue, a third movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content.”

Within, listeners could with some effort find passages from Ives’ earlier works as well as hints of marching and ragtime tunes, patriotic melodies and old Protestant hymns — including strains of the mega-familiar “Sweet By and By” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and four other hymns.

The Ives symphony featured on piano Peter Dugan, a 28-year-old who’d look like a prodigy except for his carefully trimmed dark beard, and the partially volunteer, partially pro San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin.

The piece is so complicated, however, that a second conductor — Christian Reif — was required. At times, indeed, MTT’s hands floated one way while Reif’s were dealing with an entirely different time signature.

Tilson Thomas — who’d instinctively inserted a Nov. 19 benefit concert for North Bay fire victims into the symphony’s schedule — intends to step down in June 2020 (at age 75) after a quarter of a century as the symphony’s music director.

But he’s not completely hanging up his baton.

As music director laureate, he’ll continue to lead the orchestra “for a minimum of four weeks each season in addition to other special projects,” according to the symphony’s website.

So his fans can breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

Upcoming world-class solo performances with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, will spotlight pianists Emanuel Ax playing Mozart and Schoenberg from Jan. 11 to 13 and Yefim Bronfman in recital Feb. 18; violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Martha Argerich in a matinee recital March 16; and pianist Yuja Wang in recital May 6. Information: (415) 864-6400 or www.sfsymphony.org. 

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

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