Arts & Events

MTT 70th Birthday Celebration at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday January 22, 2015 - 10:28:00 AM

Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director, presided over a 70th birthday for himself in a gala concert Thursday, January 15, 2015, at Davies Hall. As might be expected, this concert came up short on great music but long on schtick. What can one expect from a concert whose featured work for six pianos and orchestra was sketched out by Franz Liszt in 1837 but apparently never com-pleted and never performed by Liszt in its intended version. This work, Hexameron, or “Grand Bravura Variations on the March from Bellini’s I Puritani, for Six Pianos,” was ‘reconstructed’, as it is said, by Robert Linn from orchestral cues in Liszt’s solo piano scores. Michael Tilson Thomas may well have been the first to organize a performance of the six piano and orchestra version in a 1971 concert in Boston. MTT also led San Francisco Symphony in a similar performance of Hexameron in a 1985 concert here. More about this work later in this review. 

To begin with, everything about this birthday gala concert smacked of an unabashed cult of personality. Black-and-white blown-up reproductions of photo-graphs of MTT as a child, as a teen, as an adult, as a graying senior, festooned the store-front windows in front of Davies Hall. Inside Davies Hall, balloons of three shades of blue festooned the rear wall separating the orchestra from the tiers located above the orchestra. Before the concert began, a montage of photos of MTT was projected on a large screen above the orchestra. When MTT entered, he did not im-mediately launch into music but instead grabbed a microphone and played emcee to 

his own birthday splash. As emcee, let’s just say that David Letterman he was not. 

When MTT finally got around to the music, the first piece he conducted, Georges Bizet’s Farandole from L’Arlésienne, Suite No. 2, was played so loud and so fast it was over, thankfully, in the blink of an eye. Next, Montreal native pianist Marc-André Hamelin entered to perform the third and final movement from Dimitri Shostakovich ‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F-major. This work, written in 1957 as a birthday present to Dimitri’s son, Maxim, on his nineteenth birthday, is full of delight and humor. The finale gallops along with unbridled enthusiasm to a rip-roaring climax. Pianist Hamelin executed this rambunctious but not very serious movement with show-stopping technique. 

If one wanted great music, the next item on the program was perhaps the only example to be offered – the famous Andante movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C-major, marvelously played here by Polish-born Emmanuel Ax. Mozart here demonstrates his uncanny ability to develop the simplest melodic lines into the most wondrously sustained mood of sublime beauty. This was unquestionably the highlight, for me, at least, of a night otherwise given over to superficial glitz. 

The next offering on the program, was a piano duet for four hands by Franz Schubert entitled Marche caractéristique No, 1. Pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet of France and American Jeremy Denk took on this rollicking scherzo. Perhaps inad-vertently, they managed to turn it into a comedy routine. Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the straight man, and Jeremy Denk played comic relief, the latter probably without realizing the comedic effect of his playing. Let us just say that Jeremy Denk plays with a flamboyant style that includes much lolling of the head, much arching of the back in his seat, much violent head-snapping, and, at the end of his pianistic runs, much triumphant upraising of an arm. I for one find Denk’s style enormously irritating and distracting. In this four-hand duet, Denk repeatedly swiveled his head to stare in-tently at his pianistic partner with a slightly demented or demonic expression on his face. The audience, thinking this was intentionally comedic, laughed loudly. I doubt there was any comedic intention in Denk’s histrionics. I have seen him play before. This is simply the way this gifted but utterly unselfconscious pianist plays. Denk either has no idea how ridiculous he looks; or, worse, perhaps he cultivates this as a personal style. To me, it is appalling. No matter how well Denk may play, I cannot forgive these clown-like mannerisms. He turned a fine duet for four-hand piano by Schubert into a cartoon. One must credit Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Denk’s partner in this fiasco, for ignoring Denk’s histrionics and playing Schubert as if he were oblivious to Denk’s clownish mannerisms. 

Next onstage was Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who entered wearing a red dress slit very high on the thigh, showing much shapely leg. Wang performed the Scherzo from Henry Litolff’s Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D-minor. Litolff, who was born in 1818 and died in 1891, wrote only one piece that has survived – this Scherzo. Under Wang’s hands, this work proved exciting though not profound, simply a vehicle for pianistic virtuosity, which Yuja Wang provided capably. The final musical offering before intermission included three dances from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake –a Neapolitan dance, featuring a trumpet solo by Marc Inouye, a Russian dance featuring first violinist Alexander Barantschik, and a Mazurka involving the entire orchestra. 

There followed an extended intermission in which the audience was offered complimentary treats and wine in celebration of MTT’s 70th birthday. When the second half of the program got underway, Michael Tilson Thomas relinquished the conductor’s chair to Teddy Abrams, while MTT repaired to one of the six pianos per-forming in Liszt’s Hexameron. Hardly stinting himself, MTT took the part of no less than Franz Liszt in this six-piano extravaganza, playing the introductory themes, the leading improvisation, and the conclusion of this ‘reconstructed’ work; and he took this lead role with a combined force of pre-eminent pianists in tow that included Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Marc-André Hamelin, Emmanuel Ax, Yuja Wang, and Jeremy Denk. The work itself offered much glitzy virtuosity but little in the way of the deep feeling that underlies the melody from Bellini’s I Puritani on which this superficial extravaganza was based.  

Before the final announced work on the program, Bernstein”s overture to Candide, four pianists stepped forth – Emmanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Marc-André Hamelin – to perform a four-hand version of the overture to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Following this virtuoso rendition, MTT removed his suit jacket, put on a phosphorescent blue and silver sequined rock-star’s jacket, which he proudly preened to show the initials MTT on the back, and proceeded to sit down with his feet up while the orchestra began playing the overture to Bernstein’s Candide. The audience lapped it up. At the close of this jazzy piece, men in Mickey Mouse costumes raced down the aisles of Davies Hall, followed by women holding aloft balloons, while a sexy woman in a glitzy gown walked onstage from the wings with a huge birthday cake for a hat. Ribbons descended from the ceiling in tribute to MTT’s birthday. For his part, MTT stroked the ears of each Mickey Mouse impostor; and thus ended the 70th birthday celebration of MTT at San Francisco Symphony.