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Bated Breath, as a Baton Is Raised for a Specialty

11.15.13
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

San Francisco Symphony Performs at Carnegie Hall

By James R. Oestreich

When the San Francisco Symphony canceled an East Coast tour in March because of a players’ strike, one event that went by the board was a Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, to have been led by the ensemble’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas. The loss disappointed many, since this combination of orchestra and conductor is typically potent in Mahler.

Together they have recorded all nine symphonies and other Mahler works over the last decade on the orchestra’s own label, SFS Media. As Brent Assink, the ensemble’s executive director, said in March, “These musicians have inhabited Mahler.”

Repairing that loss was simple enough: the orchestra shunted the Ninth ahead a season and performed it at Carnegie on Thursday evening in the second of its two concerts there. (Alas, what fell victim to this exchange was Mahler’s Third Symphony, a work Mr. Thomas interprets particularly well.) So expectations ran high on Thursday, especially after the orchestra’s excellent performance of a catchall program of Mozart, Beethoven, Copland and Steven Mackey on Wednesday evening.

But a bit of sour intonation from the horns at the beginning of the Mahler spelled trouble, and other minor mishaps followed. Still, those would have mattered little if the performance had been more persuasive over all.

It had wonderful moments, though not always a compelling flow. Mr. Thomas worked the extremes: in dynamics, from fierce outbursts to barely audible string pianissimos; and in tempos, from headlong dashes to the distended dying, yearning wisps at the end of the work.

The pace had a herky-jerky feel at times, though those extremes could also pay dividends. The near-stasis early in the development section of the first movement added point and poignancy to Mahler’s haltings and misdirections.

If the orchestra as a whole sometimes lacked heft, a compensating transparency allowed Mahler’s intricate counterpoint to shine through. The strings missed some of the warmth essential to this piece, though there were excellent solos by Alexander Barantschik, the concertmaster, and Jonathan Vinocour, the principal violist.

So it was a good performance, if not the great one many had hoped for. But there was little to fault in the conceptions or performances of the works on Wednesday: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, Copland’s “Symphonic Ode” and, in its New York premiere, Mr. Mackey’s “Eating Greens.”

The pianist Jeremy Denk, seemingly gaining recognition everywhere these days, was the superb soloist in the Mozart concerto, exuding personality, teasing out humor with widely varied touch and articulation, dropping in elegant embellishments, tagging along with the orchestra to end the piece. Mr. Thomas and the orchestra were also fine here, as they were on their own in a hearty rendition of “Leonore.”

Mr. Mackey also courts humor in his “Eating Greens,” of 1993, inspired, he writes in program notes, by a painting of a multigenerational African-American family by Margaret Leonard, whose work he calls “deeply playful,” and by the “crackpot inventors” of American music, from Ives to Carter. The work — “a hallucinatory concerto for orchestra,” Mr. Thomas called it from the stage — is an exercise in rhythm and color, orchestral and otherwise, with its use of electronics, sampling and noisemakers of all types.

The orchestra responded gamely, and the audience seemed genuinely amused and pleased, not the standard Carnegie response to contemporary music.

Copland’s “Symphonic Ode,” from his late 20s, already shows the composer’s considerable flair for orchestration, though he uses it here abstractly. We know it better from his more pictorial later pieces, and Mr. Thomas obliged with one of those as an encore, “Hoe-Down” from “Rodeo.”