Classical: Loud as a fairground but more fun

Ives, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev / SFSO Barbican, London

A CACOPHONOUS crescendo of pre-concert tuning hinted at things to come when the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra crowded the stage at Thursday night's Barbican concert under Michael Tilson Thomas. It was the opening event in the 1999 "Great Orchestras of the World Series" which forms part of the Barbican's Great Performers.

After a respectful silence and the ritual dimming of lights, Tilson Thomas ushered in Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, which opens with "The Saint Gaudens in Boston Common", an eerie amalgam of melodies and sonorities, exquisitely shaded, superbly played but with an inner energy that quite transcended the scores' mostly quiet surface. How wonderful to hear Ives played with such unselfconscious assurance, but then Tilson Thomas had the right instrument for the job, a seasoned line-up of top- ranking, mostly young players. "Puttnam's Camp" came next, a dazzling fantasy full of converging banalities, loud as a fairground but much more fun. (There were audible titters from the audience.) Then there was the "Housatonic at Stockbridge", shrouded in mist at either end but garishly lit at the centre.

The audience seemed a little unsure and were only too grateful to applaud the effortless virtuosity of Gill Shaham in Mendelssohn's perennially popular Violin Concerto. Shaham played with elegance, a full tone and sense of purpose, smiling appreciatively when the orchestra took the tunes, and treading the few feet allocated to him while he caressed the solo line. Tilson Thomas's accompaniment was full of lovely things and it seemed as if the two of them were having a ball. What most impressed was a mutual attentiveness, so essential in a performance that was above all flexible and imaginative.

Opinions differ as to whether Prokofiev's wartime Fifth Symphony is, or is not, about heroism; but few would question its high standing among the mid-century's musical masterpieces. Tilson Thomas made a great impact with the epic first movement, varying the pulse and driving hard at key climaxes, and the closing pages had a cinematic magnificence,.

Prokofiev places a sardonic Scherzo second, which Tilson Thomas and his band invested with characteristic dynamism. Again, contrasts were played up for their maximum effect, though he seemed to sense menace beneath the frivolity. When it was over, he just stood there, head bowed, before cueing a sombre but powerful account of the Adagio. Nothing was left to chance, mainly because Tilson Thomas had so much to say about the music. His LSO record was good, but last night's performance bordered on greatness.

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