On November 11, the San Francisco Symphony hosted the US premier of Danny Elfmans’s Cello Concerto with the beloved, off-beat composer present. Micheal Tilson Thomas conducted the symphony—with soloist Gautier Capuçon—and the Davies Symphony Hall audience was thrilled to have him on stage with baton in hand, as he launched into opener “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” (1947) by Stravinsky (Tilson Thomas left his position in 2020 and has been fighting brain cancer.) Under his direction, Stravinksy’s wind symphonies provided an appropriate musical introduction to Elfman’s work.
Elfman’s fan base ranges from his new wave Oingo Boingo days to his myriad film scores—and, of course, indelible theme songs for shows like “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” Hardcore fans also appreciate his violin concerto, piano quartet, a ballet, and a percussion quartet, so aren’t at all surprised that his range includes a Cello Concerto.
First movement “Searching” finds the cello and the orchestra creating an exuberant mood. The second movement, “Molto (almost) perpetuo” features an (almost) manic playing of the strings. This building, building, and building of energy crescendos into the third movement, “Meditation.” During this section, the audience and the musicians seem to collectively exhale and relax. The final movement reconciles these varying degrees of intensity to coalesce into a balanced “Homecoming.” Throughout the concerto, Elfman fans will recognize his penchant for the percussive highlights provided by the chimes, glockenspiel, tam-tam, vibraphone, and xylophone.
Soloist Capuçon brought Elfman’s varied musical moods to life with the vibrancy of a virtuoso. Elfman’s composition, M.T.T. ‘s conducting, and Capuçon’s playing represent the tensions between the generations of these men. Elfman at 69 represents an urgency some feel to finish our life’s work. M.T.T at 77 facing a serious health issue stands for those of us more circumspect about all aspects of life. Capuçon at 41 brings the vigor and vibrancy of our youthful selves. That Elfman’s concerto offers a place for all of these stages of life is yet another testament to his abilities to let art represent the variations and vicissitudes of our lives.
Closing the evening with Tchaikovksy’s “Serenade for Strings, Opus 48” (1880), M.T.T. ‘s conducting was the most expansive of the evening. Both soothing and melancholic, the serenade sent the audience off into the crisp, November San Francisco night with much to consider. —Words: Patty Riek. Photos: Jon Bauer