Thursday, February 08, 2007

San Francisco Symphony, Like City Itself, Pleasantly Trots Out Depiction Of Seven Deadly Sins While Holding In Reserve Deeper Faith, Hope, And Charity

... "Too big, in fact, to fit through your front door.

That was the dilemma facing Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony when they took delivery on composer Robin Holloway's huge, splendiferous new Fourth Concerto for Orchestra. This was the third and by far the most substantial in a series of pieces the Symphony has commissioned from Holloway, and it left Thomas and the orchestra with far more music than they could easily accommodate.

How much more? Well, Thursday's premiere in Davies Symphony Hall ran 65 minutes -- and that's because the orchestra only played five of the work's six movements.

But what music it is! Holloway writes as though all the harmonic fluidity and orchestral virtuosity of Strauss, Mahler, Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov were at his fingertips -- as no doubt they are -- and he uses those resources to craft a narrative journey that is endlessly compelling and always accessible.

That journey is based on the medieval English epic "Piers Ploughman," but the plot is no more necessary for a listener's enjoyment than it is in the case of Strauss' literary tone poems, which are Holloway's most obvious models (the score includes more than one tip of the hat to "Don Quixote"). Holloway's dramatic skill and extravagant inventiveness are all that matters.

The concerto grabs the listener right from the opening pages -- a gloriously evocative "once upon a time" with muted horn calls rising through the string-laden mists -- and never lets go. An hour later, when Holloway rings down the curtain with an aptly matched epilogue, the musical impulse is still going strong.

In between come a series of indelibly painted panoramas. In one, the protagonist surveys the mad crowd of humanity and the orchestra launches into a funny, ebullient and somewhat fantastical dance. Richard Strauss waltzes his way through, a cleric marches past intoning Gregorian chant and characters from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" put in an ominous appearance.

Even more pictorial is the sequence of dances that follows, with one for each of the seven deadly sins (a counterpart depicting the seven cardinal virtues was the movement that was jettisoned Thursday). So Holloway gives us the pompous orchestral overture of Pride, a snit of blazing trombones for Wrath and a slow-moving segment for Sloth that practically brings the piece to a torpid halt....

If there is any reservation to be voiced about the piece, it is only that so much of what it includes feels deeply familiar. The harmonic language, the formal structures and especially Holloway's fondness for the big splashy climax -- all of these fit perfectly well into the expectations of a listener versed in the music of the late Romantics.

Holloway's skill as a composer is so profound that the piece often sounds like the tone poem Strauss neglected to write. That's a far cry from being merely imitation Strauss -- Holloway can meet his great forebear on his own terms -- but it also means that surprises and unexpected turns are hard to come by.

Still, the Fourth Concerto is obviously a major addition to the orchestral repertoire, and one can only hope that the Symphony brings it back again soon, in full this time -- if only to correct the moral imbalance left by giving us vices without virtues." ...

Joshua Kosman "Big audio dynamite -- Holloway a huge undertaking for Symphony" San Francisco Chronicle February 3, 2007

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936; in the Collection of the Fine Arts Museums (de Young Museum) of San Francisco.

Photo credit: (c) Aaron Douglas. All Rights Reserved. Via University of Virginia. With thanks.


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