Tag Archives: Davies Symphony Hall

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.

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.

BUDAPEST FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA at San Francisco Symphony; Part One: All Brahms

november-28-29-30-Fischer-270x180On Sunday, January 25, Ivan Fischer led  the extraordinary Budapest Festival Orchestra in an all Brahms  program: Symphony No. 3 in F maj. Op. 90, and Symphony No.1 in C min., Op 68. Those individuals anywhere near San Francisco’s Civic Center will have seen a rounded, disk shape flying low and close to City Hall and the Opera House. It was the roof of Davies Symphony Hall which had lifted up and off the Hall at the conclusion of Symphony No. 1. What caused the lift off? Was it the energy created by the music itself or the force of the audience opening its four thousand eyes, leaning back and saying “oh!” surprised at its own exaltation? Sitting here, in Mountain View, just down the road from NASA Ames Research Center, one may leave the aeronautics to them, but it was not an unidentified flying object.170px-JohannesBrahms It was pure music rearranging the world. Symphony No. 3 opened the program. It is gorgeous, Brahms music which seems big enough to embrace the whole world. Mr. Fischer’s presentation took 7 fewer minutes than the older recording I listened to days later, wanting more of the experience. The BFO version was not rushed. It contained a sense of purpose and drive that made the whole symphony seem to pour forth without a pause. It opens with the Allegro con Brio making a declaration, presenting both a gentle dance and a struggle. There is an interplay amongst the strings in which their music seems to overlap like weaving. Despite the certain darkness behind the sprightly dance, a more positive theme re-emerges through the assault. There is no story or characterization in the music, and yet it is necessary to communicate its essence in the drama of language. This music carried in it the sweetness of our universe, even though the universe is impersonal forces. The Allegretto moves like the swaying of planets; it is so big and still intimate. It builds up to an enfolding theme that communicates human devotion. The winds suggest steps. Are they steps through the stars or human steps climbing lightfootedly through hills, rocking, turning through mists? The final, Allegro movement is busy, restless, quiet and suddenly louder. It surprises the listener and somehow suggests: we should have known. The call and response of the second movement reappears to remind us we were given hints and signs. In fact, we were shown. A spontaneous thought comes: “oh, no!” at the determined rebuilding of the music. It is wrestling with an angel. The horns make an announcement as they come over the hill, fighting and elevating at the same time. It is quiet music of our own atmosphere. Looking back, it brought to mind Robert Frost’s observation that “Earth’s the right place for love.” That is despite our limitations and because of them. There is Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 to encompass and present the love of Earth and the impossible human condition, the unbearable human condition which we might accept through Brahms’ triumph of beauty and understanding. Ivan Fischer Photo: Marco Borggrevepictures: Ivan Fischer, Johannes Brahms, Ivan Fischer. The Symphony No. 1 has a misleading title. It is Brahms’ first symphony, but when he wrote it he was hardly a beginner. While music writers make much of how long Brahms waited to write his symphony and that he worked on it at least 15 years, he created chamber music, choruses, songs, piano music, and, for the orchestra, a piano concerto, two serenades, and the mighty German Requiem while some in the music world stood tapping their feet and looking at their calendars for that missing masterpiece, the symphony. Brahms pointed out, “you have no idea what it”s like to hear the footsteps of a giant like that behind you.” He meant Beethoven. He knew what was expected of him, but no one but Brahms knew how he would create his new symphony, a wholly Brahmsian symphony, when he was ready. It is fair for Symphony No. 1 to be called “the giant,” at about 45 minutes it is longer than the average symphony. It also is bigger in every sense. Two of the four movements use the notation, “sostenuto,” and sustained is definitely a word that matches the magnificent work. It has a complexity of themes and musical journeys in it, and all of them are so intricately worked together that each element seems to exist only as a part of the whole. This is a great work whose conception and invention upon close examination might make 21st century persons think it could only be worked out on a computer which could handle all the different threads of music. However, they would be wrong. Brahms carried so much of music and life in his being that the complexity he knit together also carries in its entirety the soul of human culture. It is not a Jeopardy contest. HIs symphony is a life and death matter. He found the answer is unity, and then he found the way to make it. It opens with repeated beats of the timpani. A musical anthem appears briefly, wrapping in and out of the whole design. The world grows quiet. There are challenges on all sides. A theme repeats like the delicate steps of feet on rocks crossing water. The timpani comes back and the plucked strings play out a mystery. Rhapsodic music comes and drifts off, marching is heard under the swelling music, a horn calls from afar. We are in a strange world or a familiar world which we have never looked at before. The Andante Sostenuto is smooth but never lulling. It seems to make demands but circles away to an embrace. Even in its quiet mood it is always bringing energy and spirit higher and stronger. It is like a sunrise but with a strong pulse behind it; there is always an awareness of darkness. The third movement does that thing that Brahms does. The listener suddenly finds her face drenched in tears never having thought, this will make me cry. It opens with a lovely, lively rhythmic tune like a child playing on the grass; the winds dance together.

BFOrchThen, a change to the amazing theme that grabs at the heart. It repeats with more emphasis, quiet steps in between, grows bigger, then quiet as the first theme comes back, reconsiders its place until all the music simply blows away. Brahms now shows us that music is made of silence as well as sound. Single notes pop into space. There is a long rest; again single notes pop into the environment as a sustained building of sound surges. After calm anticipation, the heart wringing theme returns, this time sounding positive and certain. It announces: I am here. This is all. It unwinds as there is a return of rushing, hurried, insistent music. Out of this a sound quietly asserts itself; a flute joins in until the whole orchestra marches forth to counter it. That theme returns, still certain. It is our anthem, and it persists even with the dark reminders from horns and strings. We come back. The dance elaborates itself struggling through the reworking of the theme. There are storms, threats; the theme slows, pauses, but never stops. It briefly becomes almost a lullaby. We are back to the dance on the hillside. One instrument is answered by the whole orchestra. The weather changes. A drum sounds as though the symphony is ending, but the music goes on, the clouds are clearing. There is the moment of  take off; the music quickens; the horns announce: we are here. In a succession of counts; one, two, one two three it is over. The immense, mysterious experience is over. We knew that would happen; we did not know how; we did not really believe it would come. At this performance, the audience, stunned and inspired, wore out its hands applauding. The BFO musicians stood up and scrambled, moved from their places to other places, all holding sheet music. They sang a capella an Evening Serenade,Brahms’ Sommerabend, Op. 85, no.1, written for a poem by Heinrich Heine. It was beautiful.