First up was Sibelius's Symphony No. 4. MTT offered a disclaimer of sorts complete with spoilers and samples before starting the music. I'm not the only person in the audience who didn't appreciate this, but we are probably in the minority. I think he should save that stuff for the 6.5 audience. The piece itself was well-performed, with a restraint that must have been difficult to achieve because the opportunities to go overboard are present at almost every turn. The horns sounded especially in sync with the tone of the work, something that hasn't been too common in the concerts I've heard lately, especially in the beautiful, lachrymose 3rd movement, which to my ears sounds very reminiscent of Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca. Tim Day's flute was simply gorgeous.
MTT said in his remarks, somewhat spinning Sibelius' own comments on the work, that "no one is prepared to offer a conclusive answer" as to what the music is about. Written against the idea "program music," Sibelius' 4th is regarded as being "austere" and "severe." I look at it another way: the composer is striving to get out from under Beethoven's shadow and in this piece I think he fails completely. Every movement seems to be written as a direct antithesis of Beethoven's 9th to the point where I found myself distracted by the dialogue the between the two.
The second work of the first half featured a commission by composer/DJ Mason Bates, The B-Sides. Featuring samples of Apollo 5 astronauts, a broom, a typewriter and a large orchestra, Bates manned his laptop as a member of the percussion section and gave the audience a vision of where contemporary classical music may be headed. The percussionists looked pretty happy to have him in their midst, though I sensed a more subdued response from the rest of the orchestra, as if the future had just dropped by unexpectedly and was now seated at the kitchen table and they were unsure if they should ask it to stay for dinner.
MTT was uncharacteristically subdued during the performance and it was hard for me to tell who was leading whom during all but one of the work's five sections. It almost seemed like duelling conductors, but I immensely enjoyed watching the breakdown of the traditional conductor/orchestra barrier. The nature of the work transformed the orchestra into something that was at once more cohesive yet also somewhat unsure of its role. It was a significant performance which I won't soon forget.
As for the music itself, it was pretty engaging, creating a musical kaleidoscope encompassing everything from Beck to Bernard Herrmann, though parts did remind me of the more ambient side of The Art of Noise, especially during "Aerosol Melody." The audience ate it up and gave Bates a huge ovation. I overheard one older gentleman enthusiastically exclaim afterward "now that's what contemporary music should sound like!" I have to say I admire the way Bates can forge a funk groove and make excellent use of a full orchestra in the same piece. Let's have more of this, please.
Yuja Wang joined the orchestra after the intermission to perform Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto. On the orchestral side, the work features many of the elements one likes most about Prokofiev- those spidery, jumpy folk tunes jumping out of that make one want to move with the music without being aware of it. For the pianist it's simply a tour-de-force finger-buster. The cadenzas are two stops beyond over-the-top and could be easily be called gratuitous but that's what makes the piece fun.
Wang performed it with a dexterity and precision that was pretty much mind-boggling to watch and hear. However, I can't say she performed it with a lot of feeling, which may be the downside of being such an immensely talented musician at the age of 22. I would love to hear her perform this piece again at 10 year intervals so we can witness her interpretation being informed by her experiences. She received an extended, very loud, and I'd say well-deserved ovation. She's definitely a star and her future appearances should be considered be must-sees.
This was brilliant programming, and given the tremendous enthusiasm with which it was received, obviously appreciated by the audience. It should be noted far and wide that the most satisfying and electrifying SFS programs of this season have all featured contemporary works and female soloists. The world is changing right in front of us.
The final "After Hours" event of the season was held after the concert, which I'll cover in another post.