On Thursday evening, September 15, the San Francisco Symphony played Haydn’s Symphony # 69 for the first time in it’s long history. Its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The orchestra played the short work with a lush sound better suited to the symphonic works of the succeeding century. The concluding movement marked presto was taken at a gentle allegro moderato. Haydn’s vast symphonic output contains many infrequently played gems. This one isn’t among them.
The first half of the program was devoted to Sibelius’ Symphony #3. This is a work written by a man who has something to say, but who is trying his best not to say it. The three movement symphony has some interesting components, but it’s essentially a very sophisticated piece of musical doodling. Sibelius was a romantic composer who didn’t want to be one and fought against himself to the point where he gave up composing entirely; he was silent for about the final third of his very long life. The SF Symphony played the work with precision, especially the brass choirs which dominate much of the symphony. MTT must like the work as he conducted it with his orchestra just four years ago.
Of course, the first half of the program didn’t matter as the second was given to Beethoven’s Fifth. There’s nothing anyone can say that will enlighten even a determined hermit. This is one of the pillars of civilization. If it were played on 100 kazoos I’d probably listen. It speaks to some deep central part of the human spirit. There can never be a definitive performance. There’s always more that can be done with it. Any competent performance will drive an audience to ecstasy and this one did. But some hard to define spark was missing. The orchestra played very well and Maestro Tilson Thomas has a grand conception of the iconic work, but the intensity did not reach that of the last performance of the work I heard about a year and a half ago by the Cleveland Orchestra under its Music Director Franz Welser-Möst in its Winter home in Miami. Welser-Möst, however, made the incredible mistake of performing the 5th in the first half of his program.
MTT walked very stiffly last night. He appeared to be wearing a back brace. I was 21 rows from the stage and could be mistaken. Regardless, I hope he’s well.