Edinburgh Festival: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas

Copland; Crawford Seegar; Adams; Prokofiev; Tchaikovsky

Usher Hall, 29 August 2007 5 stars

Michael Tilson Thomas

What better way for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to open a concert than with a performance of one of America's most famous fanfares, Aaron Copland's Fanfare for a Common Man? As if calling the audience to attention, the opening statements stand strong for the rights of the ordinary citizen as the piece draws upon majestic musical might. Only small gestures were required from conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to capture the clarity and sheer barrage of sound from the brass and percussion sections. Amidst the glut of performances and recordings of this work, this performance stood out in its authority, making a promising start to the evening.

By contrast, the following two pieces were a more subtle and intricate demonstration of the twentieth-century American musical climate. Composers Ruth Crawford Seeger and John Adams created works with unusual musical structures. For Crawford Seeger, it was to take dynamics as the basis for her Andante for Strings, while John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a minimalist piece focusing on repetitive and modulating rhythms. Composed fifty years apart, they both have a historical American connection through their composers' shared nationality, yet each piece displays a different intellectual aspect of American music.

Andante for Strings is a direct transcription of the Andante movement from Crawford Seeger's 1931 String Quartet. Rarely do we hear an orchestra that can handle such a large range of variable dynamics with considerable consistency. What impressed most was the expertise with which the San Francisco string sections articulated the dynamic gradients, clarifying subtle nuances whilst skilfully merging the textures of sound. Finally given a chance to hear Crawford Seeger's music, one was not disappointed with this subtle and intense work. With such a wide dissonant harmonic palette, I only wish that the rest of the work had also been performed.

On the other extreme of composition, John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine was dictated by interlocking and morphing repetitive rhythms. In the past the orchestra has enjoyed a deep-rooted musical connection with Adams (he was their composer in residence from 1979-85) and this showed. The technical complexities of his minimalist writing were executed with precision and the orchestra did not fall short of this rhythmic tongue-twister. However, aspects of the piece's character were wanting. At times it lacked furore and guts. With the title suggesting a terrifying, unstoppable journey, one was a little disappointed with the mediocre whirlwind created.

Overall, though, the combination of these three American pieces worked extremely well. Their contrasts in character, compositional structure and temperament were a successful complement. However, with such an intricate and short programme (all three pieces combined lasted a total of twenty minutes) one would have expected some time for reflection between the works. It was to the detriment of the performance that Tilson Thomas moved straight into the next piece without allowing time for applause. Perhaps more care could have been taken with the presentation of these works; such irregularly performed Crawford Seeger and Adams pieces deserve the same attention as other more famous works.

Following on with the American connection, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto brought with it the esteemed Uzbek-born soloist Yefim Bronfman (the concerto's première was performed by the composer himself in Chicago 1921). What struck most about his playing was the clarity of touch. From the first authoritarian flourishes in the first movement to the andante trills in the second movement, Bronfman's careful contact with the keys - moulded, shaped and adapted to each nuance - created a commanding and confident performance. The third movement especially benefited from the pianist's lightest touch, as the fast virtuosic passages were rocketed off at great speed. He delighted us with subtle, nimble and barely-audible fast sequences.

Occasional inaccuracies in ensemble (the col legno strings and castanets in the thickening texture towards the end of the first movement) did not detract from the success of the overall performance. The Tilson Thomas - Bronfman partnership was spontaneous, dramatic and secure, and created a wild, virtuosic ending.

Equally formidable was the performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, 'Winter Daydreams'. Conducting without a score, Tilson Thomas gave an expressive and secure performance. The highlight of this work was the second movement Adagio cantabile ma non tanto, subtitled 'Land of Gloom, Land of Mists'. The beautiful muted string writing soared over the hall, leading to a most expressive climax with the horns enveloping Tchaikovsky's gloomy and evocative melody.

A majestic final movement brought the house down. The sound of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra throbbed as the quasi-fugue figures near the end of the movement began the final build up towards the inevitable Allegro finale. Tilson Thomas led a robust and resounding conclusion to Tchaikovsky's first bold adventure into the world of symphonic writing.

As a final treat, the orchestra performed an encore of Bernstein's Candide Overture at breakneck speed: a final assertion of American musicians and American music at their best.

By Mary Robb