San Francisco Symphony Plays Revelatory Debussy

Garrick Ohlsson
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Benjamin Frandzel

Last week’s program at the San Francisco Symphony was a bit of an odd one. It was not bad, certainly, but was strangely bifurcated, veering from some rather fluffy 19th-century French music, by Litolff and Adam, to major works by Chopin and Debussy. Under Michael Tilson Thomas’s direction, the orchestra sounded grand in less than grand music, as well as in works of substance; and piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson was magnificent in everything he touched.

Both halves of the program followed the trajectory from lightness to greater weight, from good (more or less) to great. Strangely enough, the two slighter works, dating from 1852 and 1841, received their first S.F. Symphony performances. Given these works’ age and relative artistic merits, it hardly seems imperative to program them, but MTT, Ohlsson, and company certainly made the case for them as effectively as anyone could.

Ohlsson was on stage throughout the program’s first half, starting with the Scherzo from Henry Litolff’s Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 102. This piece holds some interest as an example of the evolving concerto style of the mid-19th century, and its tuneful (if repetitive) materials brought out some crisp playing from Ohlsson while highlighting the orchestra’s string sections. Still, I’m not sure what compelled Tilson Thomas to program a work so thin on content, veering dangerously toward pops concert territory.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor was an altogether different affair. Ohlsson, entirely in his element, was as wonderful as expected. The line, the shape of each phrase, and his sound, including the jewel-like tone in the uppermost passages — all were beautiful. He brought coexisting elegance and solidity to the music without sacrificing any portion of either quality. After Saturday’s performance, Ohlsson received a well-deserved standing ovation and encored with a fiery performance of Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 10, No. 4.

Although the Concerto reveals a composer more attentive to the piano than the orchestra, the ensemble’s role in the music rose above second-tier status thanks to Tilson Thomas. He brought fine detail and an exactitude of balance to many passages, from the clarity of the string’s counterpoint in the opening movement through the drama of the work’s harmonic transitions….