The San Francisco Symphony was in earnest about tonight's celebration
of Michael Tilson Thomas' 60th birthday in Davies Hall with "A Celebrity
Salute to MTT."
On stage: Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Renee Fleming and Audra
McDonald. Among the official messages: Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Our state
is fortunate to be the home of many remarkable musicians like you..." -
which should please MTT to no end, knowing he is "like the many"),
although the Governator didn't actually show up. Mayor Gavin Newsom, a
devoted Symphony patron, not only sent a simple, heartfelt "Dear Michael"
proclamation, but attended the evening... along with Robin Williams,
Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Nancy Pelosi, Alice Waters, Lars Ulrich, Gordon
Getty, and 2,800 others.
At 60, MTT looks 40, and acts like a teenager at a beach blanket party.
THIS is how one should celebrate - being all over the place, conducting,
joking, beaming, playing tricks on the orchestra and the audience,
bringing to mind the description from "A Little Night Music" of one
who "...flutters... twitters... floats..."
The program opening "Onegin" Polonaise reminded the audience once again
that opera can thrive in Davies Hall at times (MTT's "Flying Dutchman"
being a treasured memory) even better than across the street, in the
Opera House proper. There was a rough-and-noisy excerpt from Bizet's
"L'Arlesienne," an excellent Scherzo from Mahler's Symphony No. 1, MTT's
own treatment of the Gershwin Promenade ("Walking the Dog"), a delightfully
ridiculous "Rodeo" Hoedown, some Stravinsky, some Ginastera, even some
MTT songs (with Lisa Vroman).
In the vocal department, the gold standard was set at the beginning,
with Flicka's gloriously hushed, enchanting "Lovely Shepherdess" and
utterly charming "Cuckoo" from Canteloube's "Chants d'Auvergne." Her
communication was so direct and complete that in comparison, Fleming's
Strauss songs (a well-restrained "Morgen" and an overblown "Cacilie")
seemed more devoid of consonants than usual.
In fact, McDonald was the winner in the diction department, but her
excellent "Mister Snow" from "Carousel" and even more impressive "A
Little Bit in Love" from "Wonderful Town" had to be asterisked in the
record books - she was using a microphone, heaven only knows why. She
can fill the hall as well or better as her "more operatic" colleagues,
and going it alone electronically just wasn't right.
Hampson's "Eri tu" from "Un ballo in maschera" was a head-scratcher.
In good voice, and projecting a broad, dark, somewhat menacing sound,
Hampson still let the strings being pulled show through, conveyed notes
and phrases, but wasn't caught up in the whole of the music, of the
character. The last phrase was carefully - and impressively - "produced"
but without any real feeling about those "lost hopes of love." Hampson,
one of the most knowledgable and intelligent singers around, seems stuck
in singing properly instead of singing his heart out.
For heart, there was the dynamic birthday boy himself, the Symphony
musicians, playing superbly, and John Adams, taking a break from composing
"Doctor Atomic," to lead a conga line of Brazilian dancers and the more
mobile members of the audience to a post-concert party.
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