This concert was the second visit to the 2015 Proms by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, part of a wider European tour involving seven countries in total. Despite the prestige of both conductor and orchestra, celebrating 20 years together this season, the musical results on this occasion were decidedly mixed.
The concert started with an atmospheric account of Decoration Day, the second movement of the ‘Holidays’ Symphony by Charles Ives (1874-1954). Tilson Thomas has arguably done more to promote the music of the Ives than any other living musician, and this was an interpretation informed by experience and understanding, the nostalgia at the heart of the work realised with orchestral playing of restraint and delicacy.
Although Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the most demanding pieces in the repertoire, it was still somewhat surprising to see Yuja Wang using a score during her performance (and turning the pages herself). Whilst there was no indication that she wasn’t fully in command of the concerto’s technical difficulties, neither she nor Tilson Thomas seemed at entirely at home with Bartok’s musical idiom. At the start, the piano was overwhelmed by the orchestra, and whilst the balance improved thereafter,the interpretation lacked a degree of projection and impact. The orchestral sound, for all its virtuosity, was also notably soft grained, the playing exaggeratedly quiet at the start of the Adagio.
Soft grained was also the impression left by the concluding performance, of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. The sheer originality of Beethoven’s conception is difficult to recreate using modern instruments, but conductors such as Bernstein, Böhm and Barenboim have shown how the music can still sound fresh and vital with a full sized symphony orchestra. By contrast, Tilson Thomas seemed more interested in offering elegance, polish and warmth. These are not necessarily qualities alien to Beethoven, but the music’s essential dissonances and rough edges were underplayed in the process. There was no doubting the control and refinement of the playing, but the resulting journey was undramatic and unengaging.
Tilson Thomas provided an encore, an exuberant rendition of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No 10 which was a much better showcase of the musicians’ talents than the Beethoven.