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Thomas takes charge with sprawling Bruckner symphony
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, January 25, 2003
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URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/01/25/DD88492.DTL

For a few years after taking the reins at the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas left Bruckner's music alone, figuring (rightly) that it was repertoire too closely associated with the previous music director, Herbert Blomstedt. But in recent seasons he's begun to put his own stamp on that music -- and never more distinctively than in Thursday's stirring and profound performance of the Seventh Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall.

Like all of Bruckner's symphonies, the Seventh is a broad-beamed, sprawling affair, its dimensions grandiose and its pacing leisurely and painstaking. But this reading unfolded with a logic that was at once cogent and relaxed, as if the main points had been charted in advance but then freed up to allow for quasi-improvisatory bursts of inspiration.

It was, in other words, a classic Michael Tilson Thomas interpretation, mixing forceful precision and loosey-goosey vitality in thrilling proportions. And the orchestra, playing with a degree of vibrancy and splendor that has not always been in evidence this season, seemed to be entirely in the groove.

Both of Thomas' immediate predecessors have led performances of the Seventh recently -- Blomstedt in 1999 and Edo de Waart in 1997. But unlike Blomstedt, who used to concentrate on the imposing, granitic architecture of Bruckner's symphonies, Thomas mined the music for its expressive fluidity.

That focus was most evident in the slow movement, Bruckner's surging, heartfelt memorial to Wagner. The movement unfolds in a series of waves that are positively tidal in shape -- swelling, receding, then rushing forward again to an even more exalted climax -- and the rhythmic flexibility of the performance helped give this music a gorgeous buoyancy.

But this impressive ease paid off even in the less aquatic parts of the movement, particularly the light-footed second theme, which with just a hint of Viennese schmaltz sounded like the forerunner to one of Mahler's gracious little intermezzi. The strings played with polish and depth, and the brass blazed forth gloriously, especially at the movement's climax.

There was a hint to the nature of Thomas' approach even before the first note sounded. To set the tempo for the opening measures, Thomas did a funny little full-body sway, back and forth like an elephant swinging its trunk. It's not a gesture I've ever seen him use before, but it was entirely suggestive of the massive and oddly graceful textures that were to come.

The first movement unfolded with particular persuasiveness, one theme emerging from the one before with shadowy but compelling logic. The cello section brought vitality and expressive warmth to its big melody, and the woodwinds offered a fine, piquant blend.

Even the brisk, slightly pompous blare of the scherzo had the power to charm, as Thomas lightened its juggernaut tread with subversive little touches of rubato. And the finale was a marvel of dramatic excitement, crowned by the impressive orations of a rejuvenated brass section.

The short first half of the program was another matter, as the men of the Symphony Chorus offered uncharacteristically slovenly renditions of two of Bruckner's choral pieces. They were the tiny "Trosterin Musik" ("Music the Comforter") and "Helgoland," a preposterously pictorial ode to a windswept, rocky island in the North Sea. Though the big, dramatic gestures of the latter were nicely handled, the singers sounded unsteady in any exposed or chromatic passages.


SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The subscription program repeats at 8 tonight SAT in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $29-$87. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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