Review: Danny Elfman’s new Cello Concerto loses the plot

Review: Danny Elfman's new Cello Concerto loses the plot

Michael Tilson Thomas (left), Danny Elfman and Gautier Capuçon take a bow after the performance of Elfman’s Cello Concerto. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small / San Francisco Symphony

When composer Danny Elfman shifts his base of operations from the film studio to the concert hall, he brings a considerable array of creative resources with him.

That’s why an orchestral work such as his new Cello Concerto, which received its U.S. premiere over the weekend from the San Francisco Symphony, bristles with so many of the recognizable thumbprints of Elfman’s soundtrack scores for movies by Tim Burton and others.

The weighty, gloom-laden orchestral palette, for example, with banks of burnished brass punctuated by eerie bells, registers instantly as a familiar old friend. So does Elfman’s slippery, slightly uneasy harmonic language, based on an extensive array of slightly different minor chords that pass from one to another like a ghost materializing through a hidden door.

The part that gets left behind, though, is the narrative that gives all those elements a dramatic meaning.

So,  the piece’s performance in Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday, Nov. 12 the second of three — registered as a long, directionless journey through Elfman’s sketchbooks, a grab bag of often compelling musical strokes in search of any overarching formal logic.

With Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas making a welcome return to the podium, the Symphony — which commissioned the piece before the pandemic and had originally scheduled a premiere for 2021  — rendered Elfman’s orchestral writing in all its colorful splendor. A battery of percussion provided a wealth of distinctive musical effects, and the swelling brass harmonies that tell you we’re in Elfman country came through with shadowy pizzazz.

Gautier Capuçon, the brilliant French cello virtuoso for whom the piece was composed, rose to the occasion as well. Whether dispatching torrents of rapid passagework or intoning a long, sensuous solo melody in the third of the concerto’s four movements, Capuçon seemed to have every aspect of the score effortlessly under his fingers.

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Cellist Gautier Capuçon performs Danny Elfman’s Cello Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small / San Francisco Symphony

Yet for all the intermittent pleasures this concerto has to offer, the overall impression it leaves is lumpy and shapeless. Musical ideas come and go willy-nilly, with no discernible connection to one another or to a larger structure.

The piece runs nearly 40 minutes, but without a musical narrative to structure it, that aspect feels entirely arbitrary. At one point during the final movement, I jotted down a note that Elfman was bringing the piece to a persuasive conclusion — only to discover that there were actually another five minutes of music to go.

The concerto is at its most alluring when it operates in short bursts of inspiration that don’t require any development or elaboration. The quick second movement, most notably, rattles off a vivid series of broken chords while daring the soloist to keep up — a dare that Capuçon fulfilled superbly. The principal melody of the slow third movement, titled “Meditation,” casts an endearing spell before outstaying its welcome.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Elfman remarked, during a post-concert audience Q&A, that the middle movements were where he felt most free — at that point, he said, the music “can go absolutely anywhere.” (He also humbly acknowledged, “I still consider myself new at this even though I’ve written 110 film scores.”)

The concerto’s two long outer movements, though, churn restlessly without establishing a clear reason for much of the musical content. Even at its most viscerally arresting, the concerto amounts to episodes in search of a plot.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted Danny Elfman’s Cello Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small / San Francisco Symphony

As if to draw a cruel contrast, Thomas framed the piece with two works from the classical repertoire that handle form masterfully, although in different ways. Stravinsky’s tart, terse “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,” which opened the program, unfolds as a sequence of musical aphorisms, each one chiseled with diamond-like precision.

In a more traditional but no less satisfying vein was Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous Serenade for Strings, which occupied the second half of the concert in a reading marked by robust tone and interpretive swagger. Tchaikovsky famously ends the four-movement work with a sort of magician’s flourish, revealing that the boisterous folk tune of the finale is actually a cousin to the big main theme the listener remembers from the opening.

Those are just two of the countless ways a composer can treat form in an extended concert work; there are many others. Without any of them in play, a piece is just a ramble, no matter how appealing its component sounds might be.

San Francisco Symphony: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13. $40-$170. Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. 415-864-6000.

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