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Tuesday, March 19 , 2019, 2:22 pm | Partly Cloudy with Haze 58º


San Francisco Symphony Brings Brahms to Life

Director Michael Tilson Thomas has his musicians in top form for CAMA concert at The Granada.

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and its director, Michael Tilson Thomas, summoned Johannes Brahms to The Granada on Saturday night for a thrilling evocation of the composer’s first symphony.

Once again, the restored Granada’s fine acoustical balance served a distinguished orchestra very well. Tilson Thomas and the players were in top form for this Germanic masterpiece presented by the Community Arts Music Association (CAMA).

Brahms has long been compared favorably to Ludwig van Beethoven, and is quoted famously as complaining about having to work “with the footsteps of a giant” ringing in his ears.

He needn’t have worried. His feverishly anticipated Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 was immediately hailed upon its introduction as a worthy successor to Beethoven’s mighty orchestral output; one conductor dubbed it “Beethoven’s Tenth.”

Tilson Thomas is an elegantly slender figure on the podium, but brought forth seemingly inexhaustible energy for the Brahms. He demanded, and received, the same kind of passion from his musicians. With the thunderous opening chords the music announced its depth and power.

Once the piece had produced its conclusion, the audience responded with a roar of approval and a standing ovation. (I would never want to see Santa Barbara’s audiences lose their enthusiasm for fine performances such as this one, but it does seem that every concert I attend winds up with a standing ovation — a heaping on of praise that is in danger of being devalued because of its frequent display.)

The Brahms was preceded by Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 in C major, “Il Distratto” of 1775. Orchestras of this period were smaller and less powerful than in Brahms’ day, but nonetheless Haydn was a wizard creator of theatrical music like this. It is dramatic and humorous by turns, including the rousing finale with its prestissimo buzzing.

Here, Tilson Thomas was appropriately light and lively as the orchestra recounted the tale of a chap so absent-minded he had to tie a knot in his handkerchief to remind himself on his wedding day that he was getting married. My tourist Italian skills translate “Il Distratto” as “The Distracted One,” and the music illustrated this woeful condition perfectly.

The evening began with Tilson Thomas’ “Street Song for Symphonic Brass,” performed by the orchestra’s fine brass players. Originally written for a brass quintetein 1988, “Street Song” was expanded by the composer in 1996. It was performed here by four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, and tuba. The piece has interweaving themes and more than enough dissonance for my antiquarian ears. It was performed with great flair.

The program reprinted Tilson Thomas’ touching dedication of “Street Song” to “my father, Ted, who was and still is the central musical influence on my life.” Thanks go once again to CAMA for a fine concert.

Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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