Tag Archives: Davies Symphony Hall

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.