Concert Review

Review: San Francisco Symphony at the Kennedy Center

CEREBRAL SOLOIST: Christian Tetzlaff mined a classic Tchaikovsky violin concerto with panache.
CEREBRAL SOLOIST: Christian Tetzlaff mined a classic Tchaikovsky violin concerto with panache. (Alexandra Vosding)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

Touring orchestras coming through Washington often seem to have certain aspirations for their programs.

They should showcase the orchestra. They should demonstrate variety. They should have a big-name soloist. The result, all too often, is a potpourri and an evening without a real focus, with neither the frothy delight of pure fluff nor the solidity that its earnest presentation would seem to indicate.

This was certainly true of the San Francisco Symphony's performance Wednesday at the Kennedy Center, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

Michael Tilson Thomas has been music director of the San Francisco Symphony for 15 years. He has morphed from an enfant terrible into an elder statesman: no longer a bad boy, but not quite a mainstream proponent, either (despite the Grammys that he and the orchestra have been racking up).

The new work on this week's program, Victor Kissine's "Post-scriptum," which had its world premiere under the orchestra this month, represented a certain kind of orthodoxy: a descendant of the school known as the Soviet underground, with a lavish assortment of instrumental forces (including a shimmering array of percussion and even a Wagner tuba) to make big, romantic gestures that were interrupted, broken off and melted away behind piles of notes mounded up into large, static sounds.

If this was rebellion, it was a sanctioned form and took itself, like many rebellions, a little too seriously.

Liszt's "Tasso: Lament and Triumph," at the other end of the program, was less bad-boy than simply bad, a big, sprawling, self-important piece of pseudonarrative with some wonderful playing from the orchestra (props to the bass clarinet), but not much, at the end, to show for it.

In between the new work and the showy one were pieces from two other columns. There was a French work that showed off the orchestra admirably: Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales," which was fun and energetic. The San Francisco Symphony generally makes reliable, solid, warm sounds -- American athleticism tempered with European plumminess -- and it surged up with some eagerness, as Tilson Thomas drew them out.

Then there was the warhorse violin concerto from Tchaikovsky. This one double-dipped into two categories: a classic masterwork with beautiful melodies, and, in Christian Tetzlaff, a cerebral soloist rethinking the whole presentation of the piece. It made for an awfully odd match-up.

Tetzlaff is a brilliant violinist. He may have been a little too brilliant for the Tchaikovsky. He delved into it, thought about it, turned it inside out and left no part of it untouched, un-thought-about, unprocessed -- the phrases micromanaged into gradations of intensity, the second movement restrained to a muted murmur, the third so frantic as to throw the line away altogether.

Tetzlaff teased the ear by withholding the simple beauty of a singing line, dangling the prospect of it, then pulling back to add a few more dollops of meaning to the phrase before presenting it.

From a technical standpoint, it was a consummate performance; it also sounded nervous and fussy. The orchestra made a fine foil, like a picture of ruddy good health counterbalancing neurasthenia.

There was a unifying link between the Tchaikovsky and the rest of the program. All pieces have a certain lightness, and all were played as if they were works of gravitas. But taken together, they put up a nice, slick front, even if the evening ultimately felt somewhat dissatisfying.

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