Last things first: Overlooking a couple of minor horn flubs and a reserved third movement, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony took Mahler’s First over the fence last Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall. It was a great showcase for the orchestra’s woodwinds and brass who played their lungs out in preparation for an impending tour of European capitals.
In 2009, Yuja Wang made me appreciate Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto in a rip-roaring performance with Chuck D. and the LA Phil at Disney Hall. I never understood the fuss over this piece until that evening. So, I jumped at the chance to hear her play the Bartók Second especially when paired with the Mahler. Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. No fault to Wang, who was up to her usual brilliant self. The piece that can push her technique hasn’t been written yet. She did play with the score and managed to turn her own pages while dispatching every bit of pyrotechnic contained in it. There is no doubt that this is one of the most fearsome works in the repertoire but damned if I can find any reason for its popularity besides the chance to watch pianists scale its crags. The SFSO swamped her and the unaccompanied stretches were bravura for its own sake. Billed in the late Michael Steinberg’s program notes as a sonata, it came off as a long, uninteresting, exhausting toccata. Apart from a couple of pedagogical works for students I’ve picked out on the keyboard, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is about the only piece of Bartók’s I’ve been able to enjoy. Then again that was thanks to Rattle and the Berlin Phil early in Disney Hall’s life. Wang was my last hope of being shown that Bartók’s music is better than it sounds. Time to agree with Steve Martin, put him in the pile of the overblown, and move on.
Davies was built when I was in high school in the Bay Area 137 years ago and this was my first time in it. It’s a nice building and a pleasant auditorium with plenty of leg room. The SFSO has done a remarkable job of reaching young people. Lots of twenty- and thirty-somethings in the seats, most likely from the resurgent dot-com economy adjacent. Lots of my Subcontinento-American brethren and sisteren as well, something which I seldom see in the southland. We were all effusive in our appreciation of Wang but she declined to do an encore after three curtain calls. So it goes and so they go to London, Edinburgh, Lucerne, and elsewhere.