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Prom 60: Denk, San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 60: Denk, San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas

Prom 60: Denk, San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas

Glamorous visitors bring a crazy concerto, luminous Mahler, and a bit of chrome-plating

Michael Tilson Thomas: plucking away with his orchestraChris Christodoulou/BBC

One astonishing creature was missing from the cavalcade of meerkats and whatnot featured in Sunday afternoon’s Life Story Prom introduced by Sir David Attenborough. I mean, of course, the species known as henricuscowelliensis. Or otherwise, plain Henry Cowell – the American composer-pianist and modernist famous for banging the keyboards with forearms and elbows, slithering around in the most brazen dissonances, and generally creating a ruckus that briefly made him a central figure among 20th century musical mavericks.

Instead, he crashed into the evening Prom with his 1928 Piano Concerto, bravely imported into the country by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, its conductor for 20 years. Some of us remember a much younger, bushy-haired MTT gazing at us from the covers of pioneering LPs filled with Ruggles, Ives, Cage, and Reich. So it’s cheering that in silver maturity he’s still carrying the torch for maverick Americana. Indeed, the soloist Jeremy Denk (pictured below last night), brave and committed, has played the piece so often with the San Franciscans that he’s committed the crazy beast to memory.

Jeremy Denk playing Cowell in Prom 60Cascading tone-clusters (Cowell’s invention) started us off, delivered by the hand’s palms, garnished with the orchestra’s polytonal haze. Melodic gestures peeped through here and there – I’m sure I heard a plangent cor anglais – but in general this was Cowell in the raw, joyfully exuberant and naïve, bashing out his gnarled barrage as though Rachmaninov never existed. The final movement topped the lot: a hurtling whirlwind of cross-rhythms, four against three, jubilantly noisy, and nicely contrasted with Denk’s encore, the pensive "Alcotts" movement from Ives’ Concord Sonata. The audience, rather disappointingly, accepted the concerto as if it was as ordinary as a ham sandwich.

There was no place in the concerto’s fury for any sign of the visiting orchestra’s personality. But we’d had whiffs of it in the Prom’s other novelty, Schoenberg’s reasonably tonal Theme and Variations of 1943, initially conceived in his American exile to be played by university wind bands. We heard Schoenberg’s full symphonic refit – kaleidoscopic, almost fidgety, in its colours, though still with a wind phalanx poking through. The orchestra’s American identity popped up with the brass, shiny and smart, and the rather ridiculous Hollywood panache of the bulbous ending. At other moments, the conductor and composer’s European roots surfaced in the warmth and nostalgia of curling phrases and sighing strings. A clever work, this, polished brightly by the orchestra; though the result wasn’t the kind of experience that set you on fire.

It was those streaks of the New World that, over time, started to bother me a bitThe orchestra’s different strands, Old World and New World, finally leaped out of the cupboard for the composer who has long been MTT’s speciality: Mahler. His music is in his blood, his DNA. We had the First Symphony here, and the opening stretch showed the San Franciscans at their best, with the strings offering the first gleam of dawn and the natural world starting to stir in a sonic tapestry scrupulously considered, paced and layered, yet unfolded with elegant ease. The care of MTT’s detailing, of rhythm, phrasing and speed adjustments, remained constant. So did the Old World’s pleasures and sorrows, present most vividly in the second and third movements’ rustic waltz, Jewish inflections, and brooding tread through the nursery song “Frère Jacques”.

Nothing to worry about there at all. It was those streaks of the New World that, over time, started to bother me a bit: the neon gleam of the brass; the super-slick tutti, not a hair out of place; the suspicion, overall, that sonic polish mattered just as much as, and sometimes more than, the music’s very soul. I worried particularly about a rat-tat-tat trumpet staccato in the second movement, ritzy enough for Las Vegas. Now if MTT had let into the mix just a little of the wildness of Henry Cowell, we might have had a performance really worth clapping to the skies.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms 2015

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