Tag Archives: Davies Symphony Hall

SF Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas: BRILLIANT!

The San Francisco Symphony started the New Year and their music director Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25th and final year with a brilliant concert. The ovations given to MTT promise that his devoted audience will not let him go easily. Among his many gifts, Maestro MTT is a magician of the art of program design. January 5 – 12, SFS and MTT presented Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Opus 23, (1837) by Hector Berlioz; Meditations on Rilke (2019), by Michael Tilson Thomas; selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1898), by Gustav Mahler; and La Valse (1920), by Maurice Ravel. Each work was performed with zest, deep feeling, flawless musicianship. There was a distant but worthy relationship between Meditations on Rilke and Des Knaben Wunderhorn that increased the audience’s appreciation of both. Do you have a great-uncle who is related only by marriage to someone who is your great-aunt living in another state, but you are crazy about him? It’s that kind of relation.

Hector Berlioz (1801-1869) French

The Overture to Benvenuto Cellini premiered in Paris, in 1838. The Overture was a hit, but the opera for which it was written was not. The story goes that all composers wanted to have their music performed there; regrettably, performances there were famous for being sloppy and under rehearsed. “The Overture was extravagantly applauded,” wrote Berlioz, “the rest was hissed with exemplary precision.” What a grand disappointment! The Overture in the SFS’s rousing performance on January 12 was full of musical interest from gorgeous melodies to a lively allegro. There is a melody for the woodwinds that represents Harlequin at a carnival. In fact, the Overture has so much character and rhythmic variation that it could be heard as a compact opera in itself. Far from a lightweight curtain opener for the evening, this Overture deserves the fine performance it received. Hearing it again will reward the listener with more insight to its structure and colors and great enjoyment.

(born December, 1944) American, born in California

MTT has composed other works in which a text is the inspiration or accompaniment for the music. These include Three Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman (1999); Poems of Emily Dickinson (2002); and From the Diary of Anne Frank (2018) for narrator and orchestra. The premiere performances of Meditations on Rilke at Davies Symphony Hall, Jan. 5 -12, created a great event. In addition to the SFS, mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, and bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny embodied the Rilke poetry which became exciting and lovely songs as MTT created them. The singers were a great pair for these songs. The composer-conductor tells that these songs came about by reflecting on events in his father’s life. A fine pianist, his father and friends got stuck without money in Oatman, AZ. His father filled the cafe-bar’s need for a piano player. His playing merged classical works, Gershwin and Irving Berlin songs with performances of requests such as the Bear Fat Fling. It is not 100% clear how that experience in the 1930s relates to MTT’s choice of poems by Rilke for his new songs, except that the Rilke works do resonate with sounds originating in contemporary classical music, maybe a bit of Mahler, perhaps a reference to Schubert, but over all Michael Tilson Thomas. This work was a huge favorite with the audience and has dazzling musical complexities woven in among the moods and melodies that unite it.

Rainier Maria Rilke (1875-1926)Bohemian (Czech)-Austrian

Rainier Maria Rilke is read by some to be a mystic and by others to be an existentialist poet trying to find peace in a time of anxiety and isolation. His work is lyrical and searching, such a fitting partner to MTT’s music. His consolation for his readers was “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to learn to love the questions.” The San Francisco Symphony promises the release of recordings of this and other MTT music later this year.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) born in Bohemia (now Czech Republic)

Four Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn provided a brief but satisfying venture into Mahler-land, a destination MTT has made his own. Sasha Cooke returned to sing the folk song styled works from a collection that was published in 1805. The Romantic movement embraced the music and stories of national or ethnic origins, even when it was written and arranged anew. The four songs performed by the SFS and Ms Cooke expressed the trials of living in the country, loss of love and loss of life. The songs might begin with a cheerful outlook but also  were somber and alluded to barely hidden sadness. Ms Cooke delved into these emotions with understanding and appreciation for both the lyrics and the wonderful music. It was a performance revealing a root of the Romantic experience of life.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) French

La Valse, poeme choregraphique pour orchestre is such a fabulous, swirling piece that the listener feels as though she has been lifted up, repeatedly turned fast in the air, and, before long, danced so quickly and become so dizzy that she sails through the air forgetting that eventually she will fall. It is an emphatic, ever growing dance that dances itself. The room spins, but the dance does not care. Ravel originally planned a tribute to Johann Strauss. By 1920, after World War I and the destruction of much of a generation, the gracious image of waltzing was no more. The sound of this work becomes a terror. The ballroom where it takes place seems haunted by evil. It is a piece of music not to be missed, especially if the listener is willing to imagine himself in that scene and, by doing that, understand better the cost of war. Bravo, Ravel! Bravo, San Francisco Symphony!

YEFIM BRONFMAN & SF SYMPHONY PLAY PROKOFIEV

On June 22, the Hedgehogs were in the audience for the powerful performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano, Opus 16. It was a privilege to be there. Yefim Bronfman, the pianist, is surely one of the greatest pianists. His mastery of this Concerto reveals his mastery of Prokofiev’s music and of the art of the piano. Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 is demanding on every level: technique, emotion, physical abilities. Bronfman triumphs

Yefim Bronfman

in every category with magnificent partnership of the SF Symphony. Bronfman made the challenges of playing this grand, gorgeous, overwhelming music seem to come to him naturally. He breathes the music and the Davies Symphony Hall audience was captivated as he led them on an enormous journey. Mr. Bronfman will continue touring through the US and abroad this summer. If you are anywhere near one of his concerts, go. Do not miss his performances. Everyone who loves music will talk about the experience forever.

The composer, Sergei Prokofiev, found this concerto’s piano solo difficult to play. It is said that he complained of how hard it was for him to learn and perform. Prokofiev won first prize in piano from the St. Petersburg Conservatory so his opinion of playing his creation must be accepted. The Concerto No. 2 is the second in more than one way. His first composition of it was lost in a fire, in 1918. Not yet published, the concerto was lost. Prokofiev had fled the revolution in Russia and gone to Paris. In 1923-1924, he reconstructed it from notes and added new music. The concerto is melodic, suggests dances, machine sounds, and, in the third movement, even sounds threatening. Throughout, the meter changes grabbing the audience’s attention to a piano that is played almost faster than one can listen. It is a giant, life journey.

Yefim Bronfman was born in Tashkent, in Central Asia, a former part of the Soviet Union. He and his family immigrated to Israel where he studied piano with Arie Vardi, head of the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University. Moving to the US, he studied at the Juilliard and Marlboro Schools of Music and at the Curtis Institute of Music. His teachers were Rudolf Firkusny, Leon Fleisher, and Rudolf Serkin. He became an American citizen, in 1989. Among his honors: he won the Avery Fisher Prize, 1991. He has been nominated for 6 Grammy Awards and won in 1997 for a recording of the three Bartok piano concertos with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Also on this program were Fratres for Strings and Percussion by Arvo Part, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra by Steve Reich, and Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin.

Alexander Borodin

The SF Symphony’s performance of the Polovtsian Dances was beautiful as the SFS captured the exquisite, dancing music and enchanting, exotic folkoric sounds. Just when the listener comes close to being lulled into a dream, the 12th century military campaign of Prince Igor against the Polovtsian tribe re-enters with force and  passion. Bravo, Borodin!

Esa-Pekka Salonen Debuts as Newly Named Director SF Symphony

A completely full house at Davies Symphony Hall, January 19, 2019, greeted Esa-Pekka Salonen with applause and cheers before he even reached the podium. This was his first performance with the San Francisco Symphony after being named Michael Tilson Thomas’ successor as Music Director of the SFS. Although he had led the orchestra previously, there was a feeling in the house that this was something different, a time to listen and watch intently for hints of what is ahead for San Francisco.

Esa-Pekka Salonen addressing the SF audience at the Sound Box

The program featured Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss (1896) and Four Legends from the Kalevala, by Jean Sibelius (1896). The West Coast Premiere of Metacosmos Anna Thorvaldsdottir (2017) opened the concert.

Richard Strauss

Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is familiar to many as the theme music of the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey which opened in 1968. Being the theme of a hugely popular movie has pluses and minuses. On the plus side is the immense, world wide audience now exposed to the music. On the possibly negative side is the permanent association of the movie and the music making it difficult to think of one without the other. 2001, tragically, now has other associations, as does 1968, a year of war, assassinations, political turmoil. The SF Symphony’s performance of the thrilling music was so effective that the audience was totally involved and could not have pondered anything else. R. Strauss took a work by Friedrich Nietzsche as his inspiration for the music. Nietzsche had as his inspiration Zarathustra, a Persian philosopher from the 6th century B.C.E.  After isolating himself from society, Zarathustra sees a sunrise and realizes he must rejoin his world. R. Strauss wrote that he intended his music to transmit “the evolution of the human race from its origin.” It is a roller coaster ride from the stratosphere to Earth and back again. If this is humanity, it has endless pitfalls and triumphs and mysteries. This is music that should be experienced as the SF Symphony played it, no movie required, lifting the listeners, opening their eyes as they let go of the safety rail and ride.

Jean Sibelius, 1913

Four Legends from the Kalevala is a suite of pieces representing episodes in the Finnish epic story. A young man, Lemminkainen, has fabulous adventures as he hunts, finds love, battles, and defies death. Each episode has a different character and sound: Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island; Lemminkainen in Tuonela; The Swan of Tuonela; Lemminkainen’s Return. The writing creates a deeply colored and emotional atmosphere more than representing specific narrative actions. The encounter with the Maidens of the Island begins with an announcement suitable to opening the entire suite and ends with carefree, sensuous dancing. In Tuonela, Lemminkainen begins his quest to kill the Swan of Tuonela but is killed himself instead. In the Finnish myths, Tuonela is death’s habitat. As in many epics, the hero has a polar opposite, a blind cowherd who manages to overcome the hero. Lemminkainen’s mother finds her son’s body and is able to bring him back to life. The tension in this movement comes forth in intense harmony that leads to the music of a solo cello. In the epic, the Swan of Tuonela swims in dark water of a large river. The Swan sings. The music in this movement is exquisite and strange. The string sections are composed in 13 different parts on top of each other and from that complex, but unified sound comes the voice of a solo English horn. It is eerily beautiful. The Journey home unifies the different aspects of the music and introduces a rondo which brings all the adventures together. The work demands and richly rewards attention. This was an extraordinary performance by the SFS. The musicians played themselves into the mysterious world of the Kalevala giving their audience a superb, personal experience of a distant world. The audience stood, applauding for the Music Director designate to return for more bows. This event promises a close creative partnership of orchestra, conductor, and audience.

For more on Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela, see post on Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at    livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1073

 

 

 

 

 

SF Symphony: Transcendent Concert of Berg & Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director

It is rare to hear a concert by the San Francisco Symphony that is not superb, gorgeous, interesting, entertaining. One can easily run out of fresh adjectives and re-use the same ones that are useful to describe the experience of a beautiful performance of beautiful music. The concert on March 24, 2018, however, soared into another realm. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the program of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) with violinist Gil Shaham as guest artist and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902). The performance surpassed any expectations.

Albano Maria Johannes (Alban) Berg (1885-1935)

Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is doubly tragic. Berg died the day before Christmas the year he wrote the concerto; the concerto was his last completed work. It was written to commemorate Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel, Mahler’s widow, and architect Walter Gropius. At age eighteen, Manon died from polio. Berg had known her since her childhood. He wrote “To the Memory of an Angel.” on the manuscript. He dedicated the work to Louis Krasner, a violinist based in Boston who had asked Berg early in 1935  to write a concerto for him. Krasner played the premiere, 1936, in Barcelona. The concerto sums up the passages of the life lost so young. It has two two-part movements. The first is Andante-Allegretto; the second Allegro-Adagio. The Andante has an ethereal, daydreaming atmosphere: a girl watching clouds scud through the sky. The Allegretto is playful and dancing. In the last part, the drama of the girl almost growing up and then twisted with pain grabs the listener physically just below the ribs. The structure of the music in the Adagio refers to a chorale of the Lutheran church that prays “It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You.” The terror of Manon and for her; the need for resignation in the face of inevitable death; the struggle of life to remain alive is reenacted in the soloist striving over the other strings. In the end, the solo violin seems to resolve the pain. There can be acceptance and a fitting harmony with loss.

Gil Shaham, Violinist

Gil Shaham is an extraordinary violinist. His gifts are of the heart as well as in his hands. He plays with verve and power and also tenderness and anguish. His presence as a performer lights up all of Davies Hall.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 travels from sounds of a funeral to renewal of life. There is so much variety of emotion, experience, exaltation on the way that the listener’s senses rocket from depths to heights and back again. Holding one’s breath, afraid to miss any single event in this music it is as though by living with the music one can experience multitudes of lives from the inside rather than from observation. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is justly renown for conducting, teaching, expanding Mahler’s audience. The SF Symphony met every challenge of the music and fulfilled their Maestro’s vision. This is the Mahler symphony with the Adagietto, now so famous that it is often played as a separate piece on classical radio. This quiet, very slow movement could be “Mahler’s heartache” as described by the late music writer, Michael Steinberg, or it could be the most purely sensuous classical music ever written. The symphony ends with raucous, joyful music shouting with exuberance. The listener lived in the music as Michael Tilson Thomas seems to have every phrase and its musical meaning in every cell of himself.

Conducting without a score, the Maestro reminded me of Charles Dickens traveling the world, taking all the parts to enact scenes from his novels. Now, imagine someone else, not the writer of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dickens’ Bleak House being able to recite and act the whole of one of those enormous books with nearly countless characters, events, plots, subplots, descriptions of landscapes and ballrooms. That’s what Michael Tilson Thomas does conducting Mahler. It was a transcendent performance.

Hedgehog Highlight on Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=669     Hedgehog Highlight on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1585

www.sfsymphony.com, gilshaham.com, michaeltilsonthomas.com

photo of Michael Tilson Thomas courtesy the San Francisco Symphony

 

 

 

Jean-Yves Thibaudet and SF Symphony: Extraordinary!

The San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Lionel Bringuier, performed an extraordinary concert, January 28, at Davies Symphony Hall. The program featured seldom heard selections by Kodaly and Ravel and Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, perhaps the least often performed of his nine symphonies. The brilliant, ever surprising Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. The result was colorful, dynamic, fascinating,; an exceptionally fine night of music.

Kodaly  Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta (1933) opened the evening. The work is so original, varied, and delightful it seems to pack a whole program into its mere fifteen minutes. Kodaly (1882-1967) may be best known for his excursions into the Hungarian countryside to collect folk songs and dance music. However, the folk rhythms and styles in this five movement suite are made into mighty, breath taking classical music as they went through Kodaly’s fantastic imagination. His music is not a graduate thesis. His understanding of the music played in the Hungarian and Transylvanian folk traditions was his key into new creative territory. The Dances of Galanta alternates between forceful rhythms and sparkling tunes. No reason to think of music inspired by dances as anthropology, unless, when remembering Bach’s Gigues, Bourrees and Sarabandes one also identifies those pieces by the dances that gave them their names and studies them as cultural anthropology of European court life.

RavelPianoMaurice Ravel (1875-1937) was also a great composer whose attachment to his ancestral home, the Basque country near the French-Spanish border, influenced his work. His compositions with reference to Spanish music are not quotations of Spanish folk sources but have risen out of the rich resources in Ravel’s mind and heart.   2-Photo-by-Decca-Kasskara-tone-1200x627  Jean-Yves Thibaudet was amazing. He is a musician-magician. He has been a star performer since winning awards in his teenage years. He performs with great mastery and allegiance to the music. Although he is charismatic onstage, he is not a showboat; he is only a great pianist. Ravel’s Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra (1932) gave him opportunities for power and gentleness. It was a stunning performance. The Concerto in G was first concerto he performed publicly. He was 11 and had won a competition. He told his teacher he wanted to perform this; she said, no, maybe Mozart or Mendelssohn. He learned the impossible first movement and convinced her. His teacher, Lucette Descaves, had been Ravel’s friend and had performed this Concerto with Ravel conducting. Mr. Thibaudet has said this made him feel he knew Ravel. His debut with the SF Symphony was in 1994; they are still a splendid partnership. The wind section was particularly wonderful. In addition to his Spanish/Basque roots, Ravel was entranced by American jazz. In the first movement there are two notes which seem direct from Rhapsody in Blue. Ravel’s jazz exists in his riffs on what the piano can do with the pianist’s astonishing technique: rapid fire trills to effects the pianist creates through pawing at the keys. The Adagio movement: is it inspiring love or gently lamenting it? During intermission I heard a grandmother from Boston tell her piano playing grandson from San Mateo that there is sadness and suffering in love and that’s what makes the blues. Ok, I’ll listen again. thibaudet-jean-yves-980x520

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60 (1807) is bright, cheerful, and races along doing special musical stunts while occasionally breaking into laughter. There are moments of darkness, but they are overtaken by the energy and continual invention of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

lionel-bringuier-2-120x67Maestro Bringuier had a triumph with this performance. He did not force the Symphony to be played in fewer minutes than the predicted 31; he did not contort the SF Symphony players into latex, Iron Man outfits. Lionel Bringuier is also a French musician who started his stellar career very young. His professional conducting debut was at age 14 on French national television. He was resident conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for six years before becoming Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, in 2012. He gave us the experience of Beethoven’s music, and it was an exciting, challenging, engulfing experience. Pictures, from top: Zoltan Kodaly; Joseph-Maurice Ravel; Jean-Yves Thibaudet by Decca Kasskara, courtesy SF Symphony; Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Lionel Bringuier.

 

Gladys Knight & the SF Symphony: Still the Empress of Soul

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Gladys Knight had her first great hit when she was 16 years old. She is called the Empress of Soul, but her domain includes Gospel, which she started singing at home in Atlanta when she was 4; R&B; Pop; and something called Adult Contemporary which could include all the others, too. She has No. 1 hits in each of those categories. Her performances with the San Francisco Symphony with her own vocal quartet and musicians, Dec. 12 & 13, rocked Davies Symphony Hall. Her smiling, up beat presence, her terrific voice, the great songs from whenever all added up to an entertaining, uplifting, fun, touching night of music.

Gladys-Knight

The years have done nothing to diminish her singing or her person. Anyone out there who is of the age to have been young when Gladys Knight & the Pips were new can be happily assured that she looks and sounds fantastic. She prowls, skitters, and boogies across the stage. In fact, just standing still she is dancing. As a solo performer and as part of the much celebrated group, she has won seven Grammy awards and recorded thirty-eight albums. Ms Knight never sat back; she was always working, creating, producing, performing.

3175-web-gladysknightWith so many songs that the packed to the rafters audience wanted to hear, was she able to fit in all the hits in her non-stop 85 minutes on stage? A lot of them. Heard It Through the Grapevine, The Nitty Gritty, If I Were Your Woman–and more from the Pips era were there. She and JaVont’e Pollard, one of her quartet, sang If I Were Your Woman as a dramatic, alluring duet. The Pips, her brother and two cousins, retired after decades of success, in 1988. From 1987 on, she recorded solo. At Davies she also performed a tribute to great ladies of song including Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, singing songs associated with them such as The Man I Love and Stormy Weather. No worries, Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye) was there, too.  

th Ms Knight performed and recorded with many celebrity singers including Ray Charles, Patti Labelle, Cyndi Lauper, Dionne Warwick. In 2009, she sang His Eye is on the Sparrow and The Lord’s Prayer at Michael Jackson’s funeral. Her friendly patter during the concert made it clear that her faith is central to her. She and her singers sang The Church Said Amen, in beautiful harmony. She  created and directs Saints Unified Voices, a Mormon themed choir. The performers accompanying her were first rate. Singers: Alexus Hoover, Brandon Smith, Porcha Clay, JaVont’e Pollard. Stellar musicians: Leon Turner, pianist and Musical Director; James Davis, guitar; Joseph Green, bass; Yuko Tamura, keyboard. Gail Deadrick conducted the San Francisco Symphony. Ms Deadrick has served as conductor, pianist, and arranger for many artists in addition to Ms Knight (for whom she is also a tennis partner) including Marilyn McCoo, Nell Carter, Nancy Wilson. It was inspiring to be presented with music made by Ms Knight’s collaborating artists. She closed with Midnight Train to Georgia: tears of joy all around Davies Hall. Gladys Knight tours in Jan. 2017. See gladysknight.com

Berliner Philharmoniker at San Francisco Symphony

170px-JohannesBrahms

Do they play baseball in Berlin? When I think of the performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 at Davies Symphony Hall, Nov. 23, I keep thinking, “They hit it out of the park.” As performances of grand, serious, classical music go, this was a home run (if there is no baseball in Germany, allow me to say home run with bases loaded. That means it was as good as it could get. )  Conducted by their Artistic Director, Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic played the symphony with all the heart and hope of Johannes Brahms. That is a very great heart, one with the breadth to embrace the world with hope that humankind’s good will find a way to stay steps ahead of its bad. Commentators on the Symphony No. 2 have written as though it is a cheery, celebratory work with less depth than other Brahms masterpieces. While it has moments of beauty without struggle, they are not its whole character. There is struggle, there is darkness, but the dark never completely shuts out the light. The symphony achieves triumph through balance arising from the push and pull of dark and light. At the end, having experienced the fear of losing the way, the Symphony a great hurrah. It is greater for knowing the struggle. On Nov. 23, the entire audience jumped to its feet perhaps grateful to Brahms and the Berlin Philharmonic for having brought them through uncertain times to an affirmation, though an affirmation with complexities even on a sunny day.

220px-Arnold_schönberg_man_rayMaestro Rattle chose a fascinating program for the first half of the concert: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16 (1908), by Arnold Schoenberg; Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6 (1908/1928) by Anton Webern; Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6 (1915/1929) by Alban Berg. These works represented the significant new music of their era and the considerable unity of their composers’ thoughts. Rather than play them as separate compositions, Maestro Rattle had them played one after the other with minimal pause between works. Together they formed a new symphony of Viennese masters. The conductor explained to the audience that composers after Mahler confronted the question of where music could go next. They experimented with harmonic language. Rhythm and dynamics came center stage more than harmony. The music of these composers has the reputation of being prickly and difficult. The Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of the works revealed the music’s texture and emotion. It was a rich experience. This music is no longer contemporary, but still sounds new. Hearing it made this listener realize how much later composers drew from it. Next time I will listen to these works individually, but hearing this composite symphony allowed me to dive in amongst sounds like broken shards of a magnificent, stained glass window.

(For more on Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, see Hedgehog Highlights Jan. 24, 2015 post on the SF Symphony performance, Jan. 22, 2015)

simonrattle-120x67    Simon Rattle becomes the Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra, Sept.,2017. He ends his position as Chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, in 2018.  Among innovations during his tenure is the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall which broadcasts their performances over the internet. In 2014, the orchestra released the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann. In April, 2016, their recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies appeared on CDs and also Blu-ray discs as HD videos. These recordings are with Simon Rattle conducting and on the label Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. Pictures, from top, Johannes Brahms; Arnold Schoenberg, photo by Man Ray; Simon Rattle.

San Francisco Symphony Soars with Schubert and Mahler

 

Schubert

It is possible that the SF Symphony has played as well as it did on April 9, 2016, on other occasions, but how could they have played better? It was an amazing, wonderful performance with every section playing at the top and San Francisco’s Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting. The program itself might be matched for brilliance but hardly bettered: Symphony in B minor, the Unfinished, by Franz Schubert, and Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler. Written nearly a century apart, the two masterpieces made a powerful, emotion wrenching and heart lifting experience. While Schubert’s Symphony in B Minor is called Unfinished, it does not sound like it lacks anything. There are two movements. The first is enlivened by one of the most beautiful tunes every composed. The frequent short hand for why Schubert is so great is that glorious melodies seemed to well up in him faster than anyone could write them, certainly faster than someone who would live only 31 years (Thirty one years! Turn off the television right now. Do something. Go for a walk in a garden. Read. Listen to Schubert). Behind the beautiful tune there is darkness. Schubert breaks the melody; the suspension creates a dramatic halt of breath. Sadness darts behind the melody. There is a sense of mystery in the sadness. Perhaps Schubert stopped with these two movements because he realized he had said what he wanted to say with this music. Perhaps he could not decide where to go next, maybe because these movements are perfect as they are.

e7dd9b0d-be7e-3cfc-b611-1e513fcd6200Gustav Mahler received a gift in 1907, the book The Chinese Flute translated into German. The Chinese poems inspired Mahler to write Das LIed von der Erde, The Song of the Earth. The collection includes the work of several poets of the Eighth Century. There are drinking songs, wistful songs longing for love, songs in which the poet tries to accommodate knowledge of human mortality in his delight in nature, such as in The Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow. These beautiful, perceptive, delicate and yet powerful poems reached across the centuries and continents to Mahler’s heart. It was a troubled heart at this time. An avid athlete, he had learned he had a heart ailment which would strictly limit his activities and surely kill him. He had also just lost a daughter, under 5 years old, to diphtheria and scarlet fever.

4d336a3d-15d0-37a9-a6c1-fbd32a88394ath-1   At this performance, the singers were mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill. They both performed with power and sensitivity to the poetry. Their performances were a great match to the SF Symphony’s remarkable performance. Mahler’s music engulfed Davies Symphony Hall in love and wonder at life, whole hearted engagement with our earth despite our own limitations. The San Francisco Symphony was scheduled to perform this program at Carnegie Hall, April 14, with the same singers. Surely it was a concert to knock the socks off the New Yorkers.  Pictures from top: Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler, Simon O’Neill, Sasha Cooke.

 

Ax & Perlman: Dynamic Duo of Music in San Francisco

IPerlmanEmAxjpeg  Emanuel Ax, piano, and Itzhak Perlman, violin, performing together at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Jan. 18, 2016, was exactly what one would expect: superlative beyond the same old superlatives. These are two of the greatest musicians currently on our planet. We are lucky to be in the world at the same time as they are. Although the quality of the performance was so great as one might expect, their program was far from anything “usual.” They performed Sonata in C major, K. 296, by Mozart; Sonata No. 1 in A major, Opus 13, by Faure; and Sonata in E-flat major, Opus 18 by Richard Strauss. These are not familiar selections. The listener was rewarded with new expressions, colors, and musical emotions.There was also a touching, dramatic presence to the musicians’ partnership. When they entered the Davies stage, Mr. Ax seemed to hold back to defer to Mr. Perlman, but once they were positioned to play, their own personalities were not on show. It was all about great music.

  mozart-kraft-1819-150x150  The Mozart selection, Sonata in C maj., K.296, was brilliant with bright, jewel-like colors and a perfection of partnership between piano and violin. It has Mozart’s brilliance in the sense of fantastic, playful wit, as well. The surprise was the satisfying expressiveness that came with Mozart’s brilliance and the musicians’ embodiment of the quick, starry music. 

FaureGabriel Faure (1845-1924)wrote Sonata No. 1 in A major, Opus 13, in 1876. He was well on his way to his long and great career yet still in early days. The Sonata has a seductive beauty which captures the listener like the course of a river carrying a boat along. There is passion and also hesitation; the Sonata has a character all its own. It is certainly a work that called upon the virtuoso musicians to unleash their own powers which they did magnificently both in partnering the two instruments and allowing the instruments to follow their own ways.

R.StraussRichard Strauss (1864-1949)was dedicated to creating chamber music early in his work. This sonata, written when he was twenty-three, took up the second half of the Perlman-Ax program. It is grand in its size and in beauty. The listener could take time out to think, oh, yes, later Romanticism; Strauss must have revered Brahms. There is no time out available for such observations. The music is sometimes introspective and also projects a feeling of improvisation, as though it were being created by the musicians as they played. Improvisation: Andante cantabile is the title of the second movement. Strauss’s Sonata has the force and energy to pull the listener into a gorgeous world, intense and full of power.

The audience, standing and vigorously applauding was most reluctant to let Perlman and Ax leave.  Mr. Perlman has a history of giving encores and introducing them with humorous commentary. The full house demanded extra treats. On this night, the audience was treated to four encores. Each time, the duo exited to applause and, after a bit, returned. They bowed and then, seeming to confer about what they might play, went back to perform. Mr. Perlman is the spokesman. The first selection, by Dvorak, he said, had intimations of Americana, Dvorak’s own Americana.  One could hear suggestions of what might have African-American music, forerunner of blues. Kreisler’s, Schon Rosmarin, came next, after another exit and return; then, Kreisler’s Love’s Sorrow. A young woman and her daughter who had made their way down to the edge of the stage presented them with a bouquet and a teddy bear. Mr. Perlman made a point of giving the bouquet to Mr. Ax, embracing the teddy bear for himself. They reappeared one more time, this time Mr. Ax was allowed the bear, to play Kreisler’s Love’s Joy. Mr. Perlman assured the audience he would not  leave them with Love’s Sorrow. The interplay between the musicians was delightful. The warmth of their stage presence never stepped over the line to interfere with the  seriousness of their performance. Hear Itzhak Perlman and Emanuel Ax on their Deutsche Grammophon album of sonatas by Faure and Strauss. They perform together on tour throughout the US this season. For other Hedgehog Highlights about these musicians please see entry of January 11, 2015, on recital by Emanuel Ax and entry of January 18, 2015, on recital by Itzhak Perlman.

Israel Philharmonic in San Francisco: Bardanashvili, Ravel, Beethoven

The Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Metha conducting, performed at Davies Symphony Hall, November 8. The concert presented challenging music with excellent results: A Journey to the End of the Millenium, by Josef Bardanashvili; La Valse, by Maurice Ravel; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

bardanashviliThis writer confesses to trying to like music by contemporary composers and mostly not succeeding. A Journey to the End of the Millenium is an exception. The composer calls it a symphonic poem; it was inspired by Bardanashivli’s opera of the same name , but is not a suite from the opera. The music has a dramatic path which captures the listener’s emotions and attention. The opera asked, “What are the mores of society at the opening of the 21st century?” The symphonic poem takes a journey with a woman. About to die, she looks back to her wedding day in a marriage in which she will be the second wife. Bardanashvili draws from deep sources: Moroccan music, ancient Jewish music, classically beautiful music, abrupt sounds. It has a three dimensional texture, like a rich wall hanging made in ikat colors of rubies and lapis; it is sometimes knotty and sometimes silky smooth. Most of all it was interesting, original, full of musical ideas which reached into the imagination and plucked at one’s nerves. Josef Bardanashvili was born in Georgia and moved to Israel in 1995. He is the composer of operas, ballets, and symphonies, music for theater and film.

RavelRavel’s La Valse changed its character from 1906 to 1919. Ravel intended to write a piece titled Wien (Vienna) in appreciation of Johann Strauss. When World War I began, the composer had not finished it, and his world was not the same. Diaghilev, the ballet impresario, commissioned the composer to complete La Valse. They had had success with Daphnis et Chloe for the Ballets Russes, but Diaghilev rejected La Valse, ending the partnership. The music is violent. One can visualize waltzing couples circling the dance floor, the brilliant chandeliers, the colors of the gowns becoming a blur as they spin faster. Ravel wrote a note for the music which suggests the scene at “An imperial court, about 1855.” Perhaps 1855 signifies a time of the old order, the time before civilization spun out of control and stopped looking like “civilization.” La Valse premiered in 1920. It sounds modern. It is recognizable as a waltz, but it is turbulent and frightening, a refusal of all the grace, ease, and pleasure that a waltz could incorporate. This may have been the best performance of La Valse that The Hedgehog has heard.

14708And then, the Eroica. Beethoven conducted the first public performance in 1805. On his own, Beethoven over turned the music world’s old order. Symphony No. 3 announced that music could not be the same as before Beethoven. It is bigger than previous symphonies both in its length and the universe it encompasses. It is grander, more powerful and accomplishes more revolutions than those enforced by Napoleon Bonaparte to whom Beethoven had originally meant to dedicate the work. Napoleon declared himself Emperor. Beethoven, yearning for a leader who would make the rights of man the basis of government, was furious at the betrayal. Beethoven changed his mind back and forth on the dedication to Napoleon, but left the name off the final manuscript. This article is being written on Veterans Day. The second movement, Marcia funebre: Adagio assai/Funeral March, is not to celebrate one Great Man. It commemorates each individual whose life was diminished or finished by war. It was played at Mendelssohn’s funeral, another great life lost. Beethoven introduces the lively boldness of heroes, the painful waste of their loss. The rights of man belong to every one; the Eroica is for every individual. Through the individual, Beethoven knows he reaches all humanity. The Eroica ends with a “YES,” Finale: Allegro molto. Having fought his way through loss and pain, the human is still himself and that is the human victory. The Israel Philharmonic and Maestro Mehta presented the Eroica with the musical integrity and passion it requires.

ZMehtaZubin Mehta, much honored conductor and music director of orchestras around the world, has been with the Israel Philharmonic since 1969. Since 1981 he has had the title, Music Director for Life. The very good news is that he is as handsome and charismatic as ever.