Carnegie Hall, New York
October 3, 2018

The Carnegie Hall season gala opening is always a glittery affair, but with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas plus high-octane divas Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald on the bill, frocks were guaranteed to be out in force and tickets were like hen’s teeth. A lightish bill of fare was played straight through, which made for a pleasant and entertaining evening, if a little easy on the intellect, but when the music making was of this standard, who cares if you don’t have to think too hard.

Audra McDonald, Renée Fleming and Michael Tilson Thomas at Carnegie Hall. Photo © Chris Lee

This year, Tilson Thomas, or MTT as he’s widely known, is one of Carnegie’s Perspectives artists (the other is Yuja Wang), which means he gets to highlight music by composers he has championed over the years played by orchestras with whom he has forged key relationships. That means world premieres by Ted Hearne and Julia Wolfe, plus the New York premiere of MTT’s own Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. He will also helm the the orchestra of New World Symphony, his Miami-based educational powerhouse, as well as the Vienna Philharmonic later in the season. Tonight, however, it was the SFS and a feelgood program centred around Gershwin with nods to Villa-Lobos, Liszt and Broadway.

Tilson Thomas can boast a personal connection with George Gershwin. His father Ted, who was a stage manager on Broadway and played piano in the classic Tin Pan Alley style, used to get passing tips from the great composer who he credited with being his first piano teacher. This was the music that young Michael would hear around the house growing up, and the “sophisticated ache”, as he puts it, of Gershwin’s compositional voice clearly means a lot to him. Opening with the Cuban Overture and closing with An American In Paris – two of Gershwin’s smartest creations for the concert hall book-ended the concert nicely.

Why the Cuban Overture is still a rarity on concert programs is a mystery. It’s a finely-crafted work with sassy brass writing, Hollywood strings and a pungent percussion section that boasts prominent maracas, woodblock and tom-toms. The music may be in MTT’s DNA, but his real skill with this kind of thing is in never over-egging his pudding. The sultry central section with its bluesy twists and turns is all the better for not being milked to death. Ditto the comparatively ubiquitous An American In Paris. It received a lovingly detailed reading that drew out the Ravelian atmosphere in the writing as well as the odd hint of Stravinsky – both zeitgeist composers at the time and of particular interest to Gershwin who famously asked both for lessons and was equally famously turned down. (“How much money do you make?” supposedly asked Stravinsky. When Gershwin answered, Stravinsky replied, “Then I should take lessons with you.”)

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Photo © Chris Lee

The SFS was on top form, ensemble tight and with a fine array of principals to finesse solos: Mark Inouye on trumpet was magnificently idiomatic in the closing number, while Tim Day on flute and Peter Wyrick on cello did sterling work in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. The latter had an appropriately rustic edge, even if the work is inclined to prolixity across the middle five minutes.

And what of the two divas? Both looked a million dollars, McDonald in a figure-hugging Ralph Lauren affair in plum with elegant dropped sleeves and Fleming in a slinky blue/grey Rubin Singer number with a dazzling metallic sheen. Both made shrewd repertoire choices. McDonald led the way with a stunning rendition of Summertime. No pensive lullaby, this was the sexiest rendition I think I’ve heard, beautifully decorated and with wonderfully interpolated high notes. Fleming replied with a gorgeous reading of the Aria from Villa-Lobos’s Fifth Bachianas Brasilieras, her effortless voice like butter on a hot muffin, and paying particular attention the wistful nature of the often neglected central poem that speaks of “a cruel yearning that laughs and weeps”.

Shifting gear into Broadway mode, McDonald was a winningly mixed-up emotional mess in Bock and Harnick’s Vanilla Ice Cream from the inexplicably underrated She Loves Me. Fleming then sang Adam Guettel’s Fable from The Light in the Piazza. It’s the opening number on her new album and the once bitten twice shy mother who sings it is a role that suits her well. By coincidence, both women of late have independently recorded the same mash-up of Sondheim’s Children Will Listen with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught – “I was copying Barbra Streisand,” McDonald quipped when Fleming apologised for any imitation. They followed that with a duet version of Save the Country, Laura Nyro’s classic indictment of 1960’s social politics and a powerful plea for tolerance in difficult times. “I got fury in my soul,” they belted, their voices intertwining with mounting passion.

A fine season opener with promise of good things ahead.