Christian Tetzlaff shreds Ligeti's concerto (SFS @ 100 post # 8)

Now that the holidays are over, the San Francisco Symphony can get back to celebrating their Centennial Season and they certainly got the new year off to a good start with last night's concert featuring a rock star performance by violinist Christian Tetzlaff in Gyorgy Ligeti's violin concerto and a sumptuous account of Tchaikovsky's first symphony. The promotional materials for the concert emphasize the Tchaikovsky, but I was drawn by the chance to hear Ligeti's work, and the well-attended house seemed to be split in its perception what was actually the night's main event- a healthy sign in my opinion.

Michael Tilson Thomas introduced Ligeti's concerto (written in 1990) as "village" music, and being of the "past and the future," as well as commenting on how fiendishly difficult it was to play, requiring every musician onstage to perform at a virtuoso level, and he noted they certainly had one in the house as he introduced Tetzlaff.

Hearing Ligeti performed live is an altogether different experience than listening to a recording. The composer's music contains sounds that slowly appear from nowhere and one repeatedly finds oneself looking around onstage to see where they're coming from. There's always something drawing the listener's attention in multiple directions, though the music always weaves its frequently disparate components into a cohesive, complete whole.

Christian Tetzlaff, Michael Tilson Thomas: photo stolen from Ivan Maly.

Tetzlaff led off the five part work with hardly a sound coming from his violin as the rest of the strings slowly came in behind him, including a violin and viola tuned scordatura, and together they built a screeching, wriggling frenzy which felt monumental within moments. MTT's conducting brought out a rhythm to the work I hadn't previously noticed in the one recording with which I'm familiar (Christina Astrand/ Thomas Dausgaard/Danish National Radio Symphony Orch).

The first movement continues without pause into the second with an abrupt about-face into a gorgeous "aria" performed by the soloist, soon joined by a viola, a single flute, then followed by a cello before the entire ensemble joins, including the strange-sounding quartet of ocarinas, a double-duty performed by the horns, with sharp accents coming from the percussion and winds. It's perhaps the most "traditional-sounding" part of the work and hearkens back to both the romantic and the baroque traditions of the form.

The third movement has the soloist taking on a wickedly forceful pizzicato section. Here Tetzlaff was able to achieve an enormous volume from his instrument, leaning forward and using his body as much as his fingers as the music built to fantastic flourish before ending so abruptly it was as if the orchestra had suddenly been swallowed by an abyss. The Passacaglia of the fourth movement is one of melody performed in tricky ways, and I was constantly drawn to the cellists sliding their hands repeatedly up the necks of their instruments until my attention was forcefully drawn elsewhere by a sound I couldn't initially recognize without seeing which instrument it was coming from.

The final movement featured Tetzlaff performing his own cadenza, and since I spent a good chunk of the morning being alternately amused and horrified by NME's list of the 50 greatest guitar solos ever, I'm going to  describe it using the vernacular of a different musical genre: simply stated, unequivocally, Tetszlaff fucking shredded it! It was truly an astounding performance.

At the intermission I was actually willing to leave, because the thought of listening to Tchaikovsky after such an incredible performance was actually unappealing. But we stayed, and I'm glad we did. It's been awhile since I've heard MTT conduct anything in the Russian rep and I had momentarily forgotten how good he is with it. The orchestra sounded fantastic- the strings, which as I've noted before are playing at an altogether heightened level of excellence this season, were astonishingly gorgeous throughout, as were the horns and brass, with the horns sounding as good as I've ever heard them, if not better. The scherzo was taken with a loping elegance which was especially pleasing to experience. During the finale, associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick cast a wry smile at principal Michael Grebanier, as if to say "damn, we're good tonight." I don't know if that's what he meant to convey, but it's certainly what went through my mind.

The concert began on an uneven footing with Liszt's Symphonic Poem no. 5, Prometheus, which sounded under-rehearsed and never gelled. Its fourteen minutes sounded more like the god was waving to a crowd at a parade instead of shaking his fist at Zeus. No matter, I suspect no one really cared after what followed.