Depressed at Davies
Last evening at Davies Hall was the first concert of the season for me and it turned out to be a somewhat depressing affair.
The concert began with the world premier of John Adam’s tribute to Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and his husband Joshua Robison entitled, ‘I Still Dance’, celebrating the continued energy and liveliness of MTT as he enters the 25th and final year of his tenure as SFS Music Director.
Bad timing. As fate would have it, the 74-year-old conductor is currently recovering from a heart surgical procedure preformed last June at the Cleveland Clinic that has left him looking somewhat frail and shaky.
The unintended side effect of the tribute was to underline the fact that not only MTT but all of us are getting on in years. Who needs it?
As for the Adam’s music itself, I can not call it a success though there were extended moments that both fascinated and excited.
The piece exploded out of the gate with relentless forward momentum and rhythmic drumming.
But the development was weak and I lost track of things about midway through the hubbub. The initial promise of the 8-minute tribute faded as the piece went on.
It was the evening’s second offering though-- Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto # 4—that brought real depression front and center.
The Russian master was near the end of his life when he finished this under-appreciated masterpiece in 1941. He was dying from melanoma, working much too hard to pay the bills and suffering from a decline in his compositional skills. It was not a happy period in his life.
Rachmaninoff’s sadness and dread are found almost exclusively in the concerto’s gloom and doom second movement, the Largo. Here’s how the renowned critic Michael Steinberg describes it.
“In Rachmaninoff’s Largo, the simple primary theme is a brooding presence. We hear it over and over, in changing registers and colors…It allows no other musical thought.”
The theme is one of great beauty but it is also one of unrelenting gloom.
The concerto’s first movement is more conventional Rachmaninoff, full of excitement, sublime lyricism and over-the-top romanticism where pianist and orchestra unite in ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ ecstasy. It makes for a great beginning.
The third and final movement is a technical tour de force that, for me at least, does little to add to the piece’s overall interest. I found it rambling. Rachmaninoff clearly had trouble with the third movement as it was the part of the concerto that he substantially revised for the 1941 version.
The Fourth Piano Concerto is hardly played in concert halls—the SFS did not perform it until 1982. Yet, if you love Rachmaninoff, it is impossible not to love the Fourth Concerto especially the first two movements.
It is to the SFS’s great credit that it programmed this underappreciated masterpiece when the terrific Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, was in town.
When we finally did get to hear this work--many for the first time I am sure--we heard it played by the very best. Hats off to the adventurous SFS programming department!
My guess the reason why we hear the Fourth Piano Concerto so seldom is that is has had the performing space sucked out of it by the composer’s enormously successful Second and Third Concertos plus the Paganini Rhapsody. The public just can’t get enough of these compositions.
Also, the Fourth is a real virtuoso piece and perhaps pianists are reluctant to learn it because they know they will not be asked to play it very often.
Not so Daniil Trifonov, the evening’s soloist, who gave a spectacular performance playing this difficult music with great technical skill and supreme artistry.
Trifonov has let his hair grow long and the beard is flowing. He now looks—and sounds—like the true Russian ‘Piano Lion’, he is playing.
My one reservation about the performance was that when the grand melody of the first movement is recapitulated with high violins and woodwinds, the woodwinds did not stand out enough, losing the dreamy effect.
The orchestra has yet to hit its stride for the new season.