Tag Archives: Beethoven Festival



This is it, the weekend of the perfect storm of San Francisco Bay Area events. It is a harmonic convergence of absolutely everything. The 45th Annual Pride Parade will be the biggest ever, well over 100, 000 people will crowd into the narrow streets of San Francisco to party and parade. The arts of music, personal adornment, and social action will be represented. The party at the end of the parade, around 5 p.m., occupies Civic Center.

th-3Both the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s  are playing home games. The Giants’ game is at 4:05 p.m. The Pride Parade will have moved past the stadium by then.

teahouseIn Golden Gate Park: The Turner exhibition is up at the de Young Museum, Alice Radio’s Summerthing brings live music and food trucks from 12-4, the Dunsmuir dance company offers Scottish music and dance from 1 -2:45 (free), and all the usual attractions from the Japanese Tea Garden to the Bison are there for you.


The San Francisco Symphony’s Beethoven Festival offers its final performance of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio with an all-star cast including Nina Stemme in the title role and Alan Held. It will be an inspiring performance. With liberty and fidelity as its noble themes, this opera is more than worth whatever transportation challenges you think you might face. It begins at 7:30 p.m. You will have the treat of mingling with the revelers near by. Celebrate Liberty and Fidelity!  Pictured here: Opera star Nina Stemme.


Beethoven: The Marathon Man


The San Francisco Symphony, led by Music Director & Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, recreated an extraordinary day in music history. On December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, Beethoven premiered his 6th and 5th symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 4, Choral Fantasy, movements of his Mass in C major, the aria Ah! Perfido. It was a four hour long concert. The story goes that the evening was a disaster. The musicians were not well prepared to play either symphony. The errors in the Choral Fantasy were so egregious that Beethoven stopped its performance and demanded it begun again. Reports include the continuing disappearance of the audience and that the weather was unusually cold. The SF Symphony recreated the event (the weather in SF being fine) with the Beethoven Marathon, June 20. The Hedgehogs were fortunate to hear the full program but divided into two separate evenings, June 17 and 18. (Previous posts about the June 17th concert and the June 18 performance of the Symphony No. 5 are below.)

             mtt_09-black_0598-5-120x67  MTT opened the June 18 program with Symphony No. 5. The shock and awe (isn’t this a truer way to use those words than their more recent history as a pair?) of the Symphony still occupied our beings when the second half of the program opened with the Sanctus movement from the Mass in C major. It begins with only four measures played by the orchestra and then is sung by the chorus without accompaniment. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with soloists Nikki Einfeld, soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor, Shenyang, bass-baritone gave us a stellar presentation of the prayer of praise. The Sanctus is also a central Hebrew prayer: Kodosh, Kodosh, Kodosh, Holy, Holy, Holy, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus; the words, meaning and purpose are the same. The purity of the singers’ voices created a new atmosphere in Davies Hall, peaceful and exalted.

Jonathan_Biss_171_credit_Benjamin_Ealovega-120x67 Beethoven was a great pianist as well as a great composer and sought after for his performances. Spontaneous, improvisational “fantasies” were greatly valued by music lovers; Beethoven was a master of this kind of playing. Improvisation disappears as it happens unless a recording device is present. There is some documentation of cadenzas which were written after an improvisation or descriptive writing reporting on the music. Fortunately there is a document of Beethoven’s Fantasy (Opus 77), 1809. This exciting music may be as close as we can get to Beethoven improvising. Performed by Jonathan Biss, the Fantasy was a roller coaster ride of rapidly changing forms and exquisite, high spirited energy. Mr. Biss obviously relished exploring Beethoven’s free ranging imagination. His performance was thrilling.

The Choral Fantasy demonstrates the Beethoven who stretched his arms to encircle the world. It is set to a poem attributed to Christoph Kuffner. It begins, “Ingratiating, lovely, and loving/are the harmonies of our lives,/the sense of beauty brings forth/flowers that bloom forever.” Performed by the SF Symphony; Jonathan Biss, piano; Nikki Einfeld, soprano; Brielle Marina Neilson, mezzo-soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Matthew Peterson, baritone; Shenyang, bass-baritone; and the SF Symphony Chorus, it was a musical expression of the triumph of the human spirit. It is propelled by the same joy in life that lifts up Symphony No. 9 and takes us with it. On December 22, 1808, Beethoven himself played the piano. Mr. Biss’s power and expression are his own, but one finds him a grand stand-in for the master. Feeling lighter, more optimistic the audience could depart as though at the beginning of things instead of an ending. The SF Symphony fulfilled the Choral Fantasy‘s promise: “When music’s magic exerts its power/and words speak consecration,/something wonderful takes shape…”

Pictures: top: Beethoven; Michael Tilson Thomas; Jonathan Biss



SF Symphony’s Beethoven’s 5th: Always New, Always Brave

DownloadedFileThere it is on the program: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Opus 67, by Beethoven. You know it, don’t you? There’s the image of Winston Churchill holding his hand signaling “V for Victory.” If you are not old enough to recognize that elderly gentleman, you might be old enough to recall this symphony providing a theme song for the Huntley-Brinkley TV news. Maybe you are lucky if those visual images do not cloud your ability to hear the music. Is it possible to hear this music? It was sent into space so that the ETs of a distant universe could know who we humans are. For this writer, it is necessary to admit to not having heard this music for a very long time. In fact, it is  impossible to remember the last time. That is good luck because listening to this music as though for the first time, one realizes that it is forever new. What was Ludwig Van Beethoven thinking while creating this symphony? One can only be sure that he was not trying to walk in the shoes of any other composer or to meet the expectations of the average Viennese concert-goer.

Mahler51213-120x67 The spectacular performance by the San Francisco Symphony, June 18, took my breath away. It opened the mind and heart to new experiences and perceptions. It was so startling that it was necessary to hear it again before attempting to write this post. Fortunately, the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, did record their performance of the 5th Symphony. It is available on CD from SFS Media. The instantly recognizable opening three short and one long sound happens abruptly and violently. It is there on top of you without invitation or introduction. A lengthened, suspended note does not provide relief; it is suspended on a precipice of the unknown which is coming next. Repetitions make this theme seem almost normal, but it returns to threaten, provoking anxiety. A distant lyrical voice calls and disappears. The martial sounds are resolutely marching forward regardless of any misgivings. The force will not stop for us to reconsider. The Andante con moto, second movementseems like it will be gentler. One hopes to catch one’s breath and disregard the threat in the first movement, the Allegro con brio. That is not to be. The horns sound what might be a royal processional. The king, however, pays no heed to those he marches past or marches on. The quiet music intimates that something is going on behind a curtain. A tune appears with rushing notes, perhaps it carries a message, but the big, slow king returns. Again, welling up like a spring of fresh water a tune comes back. One hears a tiny, distant pipe. It sounds like a far off hope viewed through a window. And yet, the drums and horns take over. The music makes an effort at drawing itself up and then slides down again. The ominous, persistent walking, marching sounds limp back from a war and hurry onward. Suddenly, a quiet plea in a song that picks up the rhythm and sounds so modern; was this really written in 1808 and not 2008? The tiny pipe returns, and the orchestra repeats and repeats and repeats. Just when one’s ear expects the repeats to round out and balance, the movement ends on the upward sound without finishing what was anticipated. The third movement, Allegro (attacca) is the short scherzo on which the life of this symphony turns. It is the first cousin of the the first movement. Its struggles climb over the trenches of fear while multitudes of demons circle. They are relentless. They would be comic if they were not so dangerous. Beethoven gives us odd silences which are not at all restful rests. The many ranks of demons, low to the ground, creep and bounce forward toward us all. In the final Allegro, all changes. There is a dim sound which spirals up to become very loud, and, finally, one is there with the flag of humanity on a hilltop. It is a victory that took so many losses to achieve, and still it is a victory. The struggle is still there in the victory. Just when we think we’ve made it and the fight is done, the swarms of demons encircle our little hill. They are back. There are repeatedly repeated threats, and we are here. The music declares that we are here. We must keep climbing. We cannot relax, but there is melody for our surprising win, our survival. Elements of the orchestra take turns to weigh in on this. The melody almost rocks us and embraces us. It is sustained, and it sustains us. The quiet horn and the piccolo, whistling like a bird, dance on top of it all. All the instruments are rushing like too many clowns pouring out of a tiny coach; all of the themes are rising, and it ends with music that does not sound like an end.

SF-Symphony-4x6-120x67 It is wonderful to have the experience of the 5th symphony in a hall with perhaps 2000 others living it together. And yet, there is also the experience of hearing it when alone so that one can release any inhibitions and spontaneously weep when weeping happens or stand with both arms reaching up or try to run, laughing, with the clowns.

The SFSymphony’s program on June 18 included three more Beethoven works including solo piano performed by Jonathan Biss and two choral works. Please watch this space for the Hedgehog Highlight about those performances. They were too wonderful to go unsung, and the Hedgehog tries to keep posts to lengths manageable for Hedgehogs.

The San Francisco Symphony will perform Symphony No. 5 again, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, June 27, on a program with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.23, and String Quartet in E-flat maj. Op. 74. On June 30, the SFS will perform Symphony No. 5, conducted by Edwin Outwater, on a program with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan & Ludmila, and pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 with the SFS. The Beethoven Festival also presents Beethoven’s only opera, FIDELIO, June 25, 26, & 28. For tickets and information: sfsymphony.org  or call 415/864-6000 or visit the box office at Davies Symphony Hall, Grove St. between Van Ness & Franklin.

Beethoven Festival: San Francisco Symphony Celebrates

mtt_09-black_0598-5-120x67      Michael Tilson Thomas, the remarkable Music Director & Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, celebrates his 20th anniversary with the orchestra with a three week long Beethoven Festival, June 10-28, 2015. The gifted MTT has made a gift to the City–and anyone lucky enough to be visiting–of the great music and of one of his own many gifts: a genius for programming. Last night, June 17, the Hedgehogs and and an eager full-house audience heard Overture to the Ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43; Concerto No. 4 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 52; Ah! Perfido, Scene and Aria, Op. 65; and Symphony No. 6, Op. 68, Pastoral. It was a blissful evening that moved from thrills to calm transcendence. 14708Beethoven’s Overture was brief and full of wonders. It especially intrigued this listener for its continual rhythmic invention. There is a swirling action of the music related to the introduction of human enlightenment in the sciences and the arts through the interventions of the gods. The story is not necessary, indeed, this Hedgehog had not read program notes which allowed the music to dance on its own. Once begun, the energy and magic of the music spins and lifts the listener to a momentary meeting on Parnassus. It ended quickly; the gods and their intertwining rhythms receded to the clouds.

Jonathan_Biss_171_credit_Benjamin_Ealovega-120x67Jonathan Biss is tall, slight, and has the long, graceful hands one imagines for an acclaimed pianist. He also has a magnetic presence onstage which was a perfect match for the SF Symphony in Concerto No. 4. It seemed to me to be unusual for the pianist to begin a Concerto, and it is. The piano offers its thoughts. The orchestra responds. The fascinating rhythms noticed in The Creatures of Prometheus were a good mental preparation for the variety of rhythmic creativity in this Concerto. At one moment, as the Symphony was busily having its say, one note from the piano appeared clearly as though breaking in while its partner had only one beat to catch its breath. Mr. Biss’s fan-like hands compress for the astonishing trills that punctuate the piano’s poetry as the piano leads the orchestra into another atmosphere. The Concerto is spritely and touching. It seems to cleanse the air all around it. The SF Symphony performed as though this Concerto were its own; Mr. Biss gave an inspiring performance, far beyond exact or correct, lifting us up into Beethoven’s world.

Karita_Mattila-Headshot-PhotoCredit-LauriEriksson-120x67Soprano Karita Mattila’s performance of Ah! perfido was her debut with the SFS. She is a much honored opera performer who added drama and character to the Festival evening. She is a statuesque blonde who used the clarity of her diction and technique to create powerful, expressive theater. The aria addresses a lover, the “perfidious, perjured, barbarous traitor,” who has left the singer. How is it possible that there could be an idiot who would leave Ms. Mattila’s character? She endowed her performance with all the anger, hurt, despair, and pain that could seize a goddess or even ten goddesses. “In pity’s name, do not say farewell,/for what, deprived of you, shall I do?” The aria was an interesting addition to the programming. It demonstrated the breadth of Beethoven’s reach into all forms of music. It arrested the attention of the audience with the power of the voice.

81914355And then, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. It brings us into harmony with the natural world. It offers tranquility. Like a walk through a lovely park, it never disappoints anyone willing to listen. There are commentaries from learned Beethoven specialists who either state simply that this symphony has a “program,” meaning it describes a particular scene and events, or who try to step around that a little, as music with a program may not be truly great music to them. This is truly great music. Beethoven loved to walk in park or wood. “No one can love the country as much as I do,” he wrote, “For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo which man desires to hear.” Yes, even rocks. There is a Shakespearian gathering of rough musicians which could be right out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They may be clumsy, but the author/composer loves them just as he values the rocks and trees. There is a terrible storm, but it passes over, and we are all safe together again. He captures the rhythms of putting one foot in front of another, of jumping over a brook, not a very big brook, of breathing air fresher than one’s usual air. It is steady and calm and beautiful. The SF Symphony’s superb performance captured the world changing beauty of the calm, easy breathing work. Would it be possible to convert those who deny the tragedy of climate change by having them listen to Beethoven’s 6th? It is a hard, closed heart  which could not hear the call in this music full of supposedly common wonders.

Tonight, June 18, The Hedgehogs hear the SF Symphony, Jonathan Biss, and the Symphony Chorus perform Sanctus, from the Mass in C maj., Choral Fantasy, op. 80; Fantasy in G Maj., op. 86; and Symphony No.5. I will look for Winston Churchill. I feel sure he will be there.

For tickets to the Beethoven Festival concerts: sfsymphony.org or call 415/864-6000.