Tag Archives: Michael Tilson Thomas

SF Symphony Celebrates Stravinsky

The San Francisco Symphony’s September 29th performance of Petrushka, Violin Concerto in D major, and The Rite of Spring/La Sacre du Printemps, all masterworks composed by Igor Stravinsky, was an astounding triumph for the orchestra, for Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor, and Stravinsky.  There is so much to experience, absorb, admire in each work that any one of them could be a whole program in itself.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony

Petrushka was created for Serge Diaghilev”s Ballets Russes, 1911; the SFS performed Stravinsky’s 1947 version. The music reflects a story that takes place at a fair.

Composer Igor Stravinsky with dancer Vaslav Nijinsky costumed as Petrushka

The Magician is able to bring three puppets to life: Petrushka, the sad puppet, loves the Ballerina who is attracted to the Moor. The puppet loses his life at the tragic end, but the fair goes on. The music uses every part of the orchestra. It features bassoon, flute, percussion, brass, strings. They make music that sounds like the environment of a fair: an organ grinder, the music coming from the puppet theater, the peasants dancing and running, a bear, a caravan, everything. Village life swirls around the audience while music imparts the mystical lives of the puppets and Magician. It transmits love, fear, and the death of a puppet only occasionally alive. There is so much wonder in Petrushka. While it could have seemed strange without the dance, the orchestra made music live fantastically on its own. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is an energetic, lithe dancer himself. He rises onto his toes, lifts his arms expressively, effortlessly levitates right off of the podium. The multiplicity of rhythms, tones crossing over other tones, the sounds of life mixing with authentic folk tunes all together make Petrushka an entertainment of classical brilliance.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos performing with the SF Symphony

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, premiered in 1931, is a great departure from the earlier Petrushka. It was written for violinist Samuel Dushkin. Its structure is novel: an introductory chord presents each of four movements, beginning with Toccata and ending with Capriccio. Aria I and Aria II fit in between. The Toccata and Capriccio are lively and, of course, inventive with bright, upbeat effects. The Arias differ from each other, but both offer lovely melodies. If this were danced, the dancer would be quick-footed, darting and flying like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The violin soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, played as though Stravinsky were streaming it to him directly from Paradise. Kavakos made the emotion and delight of the violin become a physical presence.

The great dancer, Nijinsky, choreographed the original production of The Rite of Spring/La Sacre du Printemps

And then, the full house audience, keyed up by Petrushka and the Violin Concerto, took their seats knowing that they were about to experience the famous, infamous Rite of Spring. It’s the music that caused a riot at its premiere. Actually, what could be better publicity than causing polite people in Paris to riot in the concert hall? Who wouldn’t be curious to see the ballet with the outrageous, primitive folk dances, and possibly erotic, definitely murderous plot? The power of spring-time to create life is the idea that propelled Stravinsky. The ritual depicted in the scenario devised by Stravinsky and designer Nicholas Roerich begins with the adoration of the earth. Pipers, young men foretelling the future, an old woman who knows mysteries of nature enter. There are young women with painted faces. They all dance. There is a procession of old men. They interrupt the games. All bless the earth and show they are part of it.

 The Joffrey Ballet, in 1987, “resurrected” The Rite of Spring with Nijinsky’s original choreography.  Millicent Hodson was able to reconstruct the dances, long considered lost, using Nijinsky’s notes and sketches.

Next comes the sacrifice. Virgins enter and travel in circles. One is chosen to sacrifice herself. The music keeps the listener alert. Even those who know – to the extent it can be known – what is happening are on edge, alarmed by the music. It has violent, ragged rhythms. Harmonies pile on top of each other, sometimes conflicting, other times inventing new sounds by piling on. This listener, her ears trying to keep up with the jarring sounds, the changing symbolism, felt a sudden, stabbing chill. It was the end. There was a moment of quiet and then a jab. Stravinsky for all his musical innovation, was a man of the theater. The Rite of Spring, like Petrushka, is rich in folk music and rhythms. Stravinsky first claimed the folk music of Russia and Lithuania was not a resource for him; it clearly was. It is said that Modernism came into being with the Rite of Spring. Perhaps it is most modern in its assimilation of traditional music into a new form. Nothing wrong in that unless a composer wants to be only the newest and writers who want most to discover totally new art. Choreographers, first Nijinsky then Massine later the great Californian Lester Horton and Martha Graham have brought this dreadful Rite to life. With every breath, the music is full of movement. The SFS’s performance made one’s hair stand on end, and the entire audience rose to cheer.

Hearing the SFSymphony’s magnificent performance at this particular time, one notes that to praise spring, a young woman is sacrificed while old men look on. She is the Chosen One, but she is chosen to die. Something amiss in this ritual? One need not fault Roerich or Stravinsky for following a traditional line in their scenario. However, one can hear this music and mentally visualize its events while current historic events in Washington, D.C. are happening. The horror of her sacrifice overwhelms the alleged sanctity of the rite.

Photographs: Michael Tilson Thomas, courtesy of the SF Symphony; Stravinsky and Nijinsky, uncredited; Leonidas Kavakos, photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the SF Symphony; Nijinsky, uncredited; The Joffrey Ballet.

San Francisco Symphony: Sibelius & Rachmaninoff

The San Francisco Symphony, June 24, gave an altogether satisfying, inspiring concert of Jean Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 6 and No. 7, with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The piano soloist Daniil Trifonov was astonishing. Soon to begin his last season as Music Director of the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas’ brilliance was obvious conducting and in creating this program.

.Jean Sibelius, 1913 (1865 – 1957, Finland)

Recalling the Sibelius symphonies, the word “enchanting” comes to mind. The Hedgehog hesitates at writing it as it also brings the Hallmark channel to mind, but this music came from deep enchantment, serious magic. It is the magic of a pine tree being green all winter. Sibelius was attached to the natural world of Finland. He wrote from a place in his heart which made him feel he, too, was part of Finland’s nature. The music flows as though Sibelius wrote it on a single breath. In Symphony No. 6, Opus 104 (1923) its calm reigns supremely over the events of growth, expressing that natural mystery with no strain or struggle. It is sublime. Sibelius set out to write his Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 105 (1924) as three movements. As it turned out, they are unified into one great ribbon of music. In the Vivacissimo, set between two Adagios, it sounds like a love song. It’s not a song of longing but one of wholeness. Experiencing it, it feels ethereal, but music is physical and exerts its force on all the air and objects around it. In Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, the musical force and the world affected by it are one. It charms the listener and has the great daring to be quiet. It is at rest but never still.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873, Russia-1943 California)

Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 30 is stupendous. It does it all: lyricism, expansive energy, darting changes of direction. It is probably not the concerto you are thinking of, but it still has that richness of song. Rachmaninoff’s constant invention keeps the songs tumbling over one another like water over Yosemite Falls. It is complex and passionate. It has musical adventure like climbing a steep precipice and dancing on the edge of a sheer drop. The partnership of the soloist and the orchestra is especially notable. Think of a pas de deux in which the young Nureyev supports the elegant Fonteyn in a way that allows her to let go as together they set the stage on fire.

Daniil Trifonov (photo by JKruk)

The SF Symphony showed power and restraint in maintaining its partnership with soloist Daniil Trifonov. He won the 2018 Grammy award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. His sensational performance of the demanding concerto did not seem to tire him at all though many in the audience seemed to be exhausted by traveling with him through the music. However, the audience was not too tired to applaud the SFS and Mr Trifonov until he returned to perform an encore. This SFS concert had excitement, thrills, and music of great beauty.

BORIS GUDONOV: SF SYMPHONY PRODUCTION Puzzles & Notes

Modest Mussorgsky wrote both the libretto and the music for Boris Gudonov, a masterpiece of music and theater.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony

Presented at the San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall, June 14 – 17, 2018, there were at least sixteen artists involved in the creation of the multi-media, semi-staged production. This includes artists: Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor and Music Director of the SFS;  Ragnar Bohlin, SFS Chorus Director; Andrew Brown, director of the Pacific Boy Choir; stage director, James Darrah; lighting designer, Pablo Santiago; video designer, Adam Larsen; associate video designer, Hana S. Kim; scenic and costume designers, Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jay Mock; choreographer, Christopher Bordenave; assistant lighting designer, Alexa Oakes; assistant to the director, Sergey Khalikulov; production stage manager, Angela Turner; assistant production stage manager, Julie Chin; supertitles, Ron Valentino; Russian diction coach, Yelena Kurdina. This list does not include the full cast, the members of the two choruses, the dancer/actors, or the IATSE Stagehands or Theatrical Wardrobe members who make a production click along backstage so that onstage, theater can happen.

The effect of this network of collaborations was enormous and impressive. To describe the semi-staged productions presented by Michael Tilson Thomas: The orchestra is on stage. The cast of the opera performs in front (downstage) of the orchestra, on stairs or a ramp that goes alongside of the orchestra and across the back of the orchestra (upstage and literally up–on a higher level than the orchestra). The walls on the sides of the orchestra were wrapped in order to project images and video onto them.  At the beginning of the opera, Russian texts/Cyrillic letters were projected as the six dancer-actors crawled on the stage floor or stooped over to paw through pages of books and papers.  Other times, the projections were multi colored, looking like colored oil on slides. Watching the projections change was fascinating and rarely took my attention away from the music, singing, acting, and general progress of the plot.

The cast of dancer/actors were highly skilled movers and as a group had a strong presence on stage. They took various roles. Sometimes they were peasants, sometimes vicious ruffians. The director did not spare them or even the leading singers from doing the physical work of fighting or torturing another actor. There were a few times this audience member could not figure out why they were doing what they did. There was a point when they each picked up a red-orange piece of cloth, kept it in hand, and waved or flipped it around. That action’s peculiarity was its main distinction. Could it have symbolized celebration of Boris’ ascension to Czardom? Only a guess. The actions and the fabric did not seem to add up to a coronation or to a protest.

Stanislav Trofimov

No one person is given credit in the program for the overall vision of the presentation or for coordinating the artists accomplishing so many different aspects of the production. Without knowing for sure, it seems most likely that MTT called together the director and designers who could put his ideas into real time onstage. It is a huge achievement.

On the SF Symphony’s video of brief interviews with MTT and the costume designers, the costume artists describe taking great efforts researching the costumes of Boris’ era. In performance, some costumes created a sense of time and place and added power to seeing these particular people going through terrible experiences–some of their own making. At the same time, Boris Gudonov (Bass, Stanislav Trofimov) and Prince Shuisky (Tenor, Yevgeny Akimov)  wore gray, slightly baggy, 20th century, business suits. Why? Boris also wore glasses and a wristwatch. That could not have been an accident with so many people back stage and in the cast available to remind him to take them off. Were they generic, gray suits or were they meant to symbolize a particular time? Were they meant to reflect on Khrushchev during his visit to the US? How would that contribute to the development of the opera? It’s puzzling. Andrei Shchelkalov (portrayed by Baritone, Aleksey Bogdanov ) also wore a suit. His had a Victorian aura perhaps only because, as I remember it, it was dark and had a vest.

The story of Boris Gudonov is a puzzle itself. The history is murky; nothing is clear except confusion and danger. An imposter, dressed in a glittering white costume, takes the throne at the end. it is another example of the lies that become reality in the era and the opera. It is not a satisfactory resolution of the rule of a Czar said to be a monster, but history seldom has tidy resolutions. The impact of this production was powerful and alarming: an oncoming MACK truck of music, drama, historical horror. In his video interview, Michael Tilson Thomas calls it a “sonic spectacular.” San Francisco Symphony’s magnificent production was most definitely that.

Boris Godunov: San Francisco Symphony Triumphs

The San Francisco Symphony’s presentation of Boris Godunov, Modest Mussorgsky’s magnificent opera, was sensational. On Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ long list of semi-staged productions, this one may be the best, which is saying a lot. Mussorgsky, composer and librettist, based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s play, written, in 1827. The Russian censors kept the play off the stage until 1866 portrayals of a czar were not allowed. Mussorgsky had to obtain a special license for his opera which he finished it in 1869.  If the plot seems tangled it’s because the historical subject, set in 1598-1605, is impossible to clarify.

. Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

When Ivan the Terrible died, his son, Fyodor, became Czar. He was truly too good to rule and allowed his brother-in-law and head minister, Boris Gudonov, to take charge. Boris was not troubled by ethics. Fyodor’s half-brother and true heir, Dmitri, died in mysterious circumstances. Ironically, the Hedgehogs saw the opera on Father’s Day. Pushkin decided Boris was the murderer. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. Think of Shakespeare blaming it all on Richard III and the evidence that even if he was a rotten guy, he wasn’t the murderer of the little princes in the Tower. The power of a good story always, shall we say, trumps the facts. In the opera, Boris is tortured by guilt, but it is not plainly revealed for what. He knows that the public blames him for bad crops, bad weather, and the death of Dmitri. He sings that he poisoned his family, but he says that just after complaining that the public blames him for everything. So, the comment may be part of the list of things he didn’t do. Mussorgsky does not give anything away. In fact, there are no facts except that everyone is plotting, lying, and when possible, killing. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, representing the long suffering Russian people, suffers and, short of bread, devours what ever rumors come to it, even when they contradict the last set of rumors they devoured. This opera is about the evils of Fake News.

Stanislav Trofimov sang the role of Boris Godunov

The cast was impressive both for brilliant voices and for portrayals of the rascally, deceiving, greedy for power characters. Mr. Trofimov’s every movement and expression revealed Boris’ deep emotions. What a voice! His powerful bass was resilient at every note. He was fearful for himself, his son and daughter and, he was right to be. Soon after Boris’ death, strangers appear to capture the czar’s heirs. The daughter has a blindfold over her face and is manhandled off the stage. They are not playing pin the tail on the donkey. Yvegeny Akimov played Prince Shuisky. Isn’t it great to have a tenor be a bad guy? He was a manipulative liar, like Iago in Othello, and like Charles Boyer in the movie Gaslight, he worked to drive Boris mad. He appeared to support Boris, but flipped allegiances quickly. Shuisky belonged to no side except his side. His strong, flexible voice fascinated the audience. When the Czar and Shuisky physically assault each other, it is over for the Russians.

Yevgeny Akimov portrayed Prince Shuisky

They were all bad guys, as it turns out, but as singers they were over the top fantastic. It is a huge cast and more than this writer can fit into a Hedghog entry, though each deserves bouquets. All but two of the male roles were taken by Russian singers. The solemn friar, Pemin, was played by Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev. He seems dedicated to religion and writing Chronicles of his era. It’s good to remember that the historian, especially when he is the only historian, is in the best position to make sure it is his party which wins–in the very long run. It will be his Fake News handed down through centuries, or at least until more people become literate and record their own favorite lies. Sergei Skorokhodov sang the role of Grigory, the Pretender. He first appears as a monk longing for contact with the real world of armies and adventure. He manages to elude those sent to capture him and survives to present himself, all cleaned up, as Dmitri, believed to be dead but now back to claim his throne. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov sang Andrei Shchelkalov, the Secretary of the Duma (Russia’s “parliament” of aristocratic advisors). In history, Shchelkalov was a greatly feared “diplomat;” in the opera, Bogdanov gave him a calming presence. He speaks for Russia itself. Bogdanov’s appearances provide brief feelings of certainty in the midst of chaos. The presence of a Holy Fool extends the sense of Shakespearean theater that courses through Mussorgsky’s libretto. In Shakespeare, the Fool is there to speak the truth, even if in riddles and songs. This being set in Russia in the last years of the 16th and first few of the 17th century, he is Holy. Tenor Stanislav Mostovoy turned this small role into a powerful light in the midst of darkness. The American tenor, Ben Jones, played Missal, and American bass-baritone Philip Skinner was Niktich. Each left his mark embodying the characters with voice and stage presence.

Catherine Cook appeared as the Innkeeper.

There are only a few female roles. Each one was sung by singers who can hold the stage. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan portrayed Boris’ daughter. A delicate woman who lost her fiance to political murder, she is sad and needs the comfort of her Nurse, sung by mezzo-soprano Sylvie Jensen. Catherine Cook played the Innkeeper with a robust mezzo-soprano voice and a canny way with government guards as well as outlaws. The Czar’s son was a trouser role for mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet. She projected the defiance, fear, and confusion of the young man who was the legitimate heir of the not exactly legitimate Czar.

Left: Wiliam Shakespeare (1564-1616; Right: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

In the Elizabethan world view, the ruler is truly the head of the nation. If the head is lost, ill, displaced by someone who does not belong on the throne, the body of the country will suffer civil wars, famines, plagues, foreign invasions until the rightful ruler is in place. Pushkin admired Shakespeare and, from his vantage point in Russia, would have understood that the metaphor played out in horrible chaos in the real world. If the head of the nation has no interest in the health of the people, their works, the country’s forests and rivers, it is also a case of the head being sick and infecting the body of the country. Nothing will be right until that one is removed. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and a long series of successors had to be removed. It’s the trick of great art: it lets one experience chaos, the dissolution of civilization, while sitting safely in a chair believing it couldn’t happen here.

 

 

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

 

 

 

SF Symphony Tonight! Boreyko, Bernstein, Shostakovich

The Hedgehogs are very excited about tonight’s performance at the San Francisco Symphony. Andrey Boreyko will conduct two exquisite pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Divertimento and Serenade, and the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich. Featured artist is Vadim Gluzman, violin.

Just a week ago, we heard Maestro Boreyko conduct his orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, in Naples, FL. It was a memorable, outstanding performance. There he conducted Bernstein’s Serenade and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. As both Hedgehogs had never before heard the Serenade, we were delighted by the beauty, wit, and inventiveness of this work. Our wish to hear it again comes true tonight. The Naples Philharmonic, under Boreyko’s direction, presented a deeply moving, triumphant performance of the Mahler. Even Mahler lovers brought up by Michael Tilson Thomas could stand with hats off for this musical journey from pain to glory. Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 is an enormous work which may present deeply coded messages about the Stalinist regime which often persecuted Russian artists, including Shostakovich. Though he won some approval for this symphony, his art was always a passionate resistance.

Pictures: Top: Leonard Bernstein, Middle: Shostakovich

SF Symphony: Mahler & Michael Tilson Thomas

e7dd9b0d-be7e-3cfc-b611-1e513fcd6200Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, often called the “Resurrection” Symphony, made up the entire program at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Saturday, July 2. There is more than enough beauty, mystery, passion, and inspiration to fill multiple performances of this one masterpiece. Music Director and Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led his orchestra through a lifetime in ninety minutes of experience, poetry, struggle and sublime music.

Mahler:MTTMichael Tilson Thomas conducting Mahler

MTT has established a reputation as a profound artist and interpreter of Mahler. The many Grammy awards for his Mahler recordings with the SF Symphony attest to that. However, there is never anything “been there, done that” about his performances. At this one, the SFS and its Maestro were truly imbued with Mahler’s energy and spirit. It was as though they channeled the composer and brought him back to us. As Mahler wrote in the poetry sung in the triumphant last movement, “With wings that I have won/in the heat of love’s struggle/I will soar/to the light that no eye can comprehend.” In this performance of the Resurrection symphony, it was Mahler himself who rose again. For the audience, his vision became our vision. We were lifted beyond ourselves.

kelleyO'connorKarinaGauvinMezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor; Soprano Katrina Gauvin

The last two movements were aided and fulfilled by the soloists, Kelley O’Connor and Katrina Gauvin, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. When the Chorus rose as one in the loft seating above and behind the orchestra, it was one of the powerful theatrical moments of the symphony’s performance. Mahler created great, majestic music, but he did not write it to be in artistic isolation. The voices extend the life of the instruments, the presence of the singers and the chorus enlarges the community from which the music arises and in which it dwells. There are other events in the symphony that leave such a powerful image of the making of music and the mission of the music that one can see the extension of life through this art. When the percussionists all beat on their drums, both hands holding drumsticks and beating rapidly, when the horn players quietly walk off stage in order to play from afar out of sight, even when the chorus members steadily turn their pages in unison and we see the turning of the white pages against their black clothes: it is all the total theater that Mahler made in order to make his art in as many dimensions as life. Reading the descriptions of the movements suggests this: “In quietly flowing motion,” “Very solemn but simple, like  hymn,” “Bursting out wildly.” The descriptive power of the music calls forth every emotion, but in the end, “Slow. Misterioso,” there is mystery. On a cd, it will sound wonderful, but being there while Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, singers and Chorus live it is totally different.

Pictures from top, Gustav Mahler; picture of Michael Tilson Thomas by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the SF Symphony; Kelley O’Connor; Katrina Gauvin.

On The Town: Great Performers, Great Show

MTT_90x90The San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, brought On The Town to San Francisco, May 25-29, 2016. It was such an upbeat, entertaining performance May 28 when the Hedgehogs were there, the audience left with ear to ear smiles and toes still tapping.

LBernstein The story behind the story could be a Broadway show itself. The ballet, Fancy Free, about three sailors on a one day pass to New York City, was the origin of the show. Oliver Smith, famed stage designer with American Ballet Theater, thought it would make a good show on its own; he advised the composer, Leonard Bernstein, and choreographer, Jerome Robbins, to add script and more music. Bernstein invited his friends, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the book and lyrics. Comden and Green also performed two starring roles. The ballet premiered in April, 1944. On the Town opened on Broadway in December. The creative team must have worked full tilt just as the three sailors went after their New York experiences living every moment to the fullest while they could.

220px-Betty_Comden_and_Adolph_GreenEach sailor meets a girl: Ivy, the serious dancer-singer who performs in a side show on Coney Island to pay for her lessons at Carnegie Hall is matched with Gabey, the naive farm boy. Hildy, the earthy, independent cabbie wants her sailor, Chip, the thoughtful, slightly nerdy one, to come home with her. Claire de Loon, an anthropologist, falls for Ozzie because he resembles an early human she studies. The music is delightful: New York New York is one everyone can hum even if they don’t know it’s from this show. They all have an ending that is as happy as time allows. After 24 hours the sailors must be back on their ship. There is a war on; they will be in the midst of it. Time meant more. In 2016, one might forget a threat of finality hangs over all the silliness; in 1944, it was the nightmare behind everyday reality. In one song, Comden and Green let us know that they knew that even then in their 20s at the beginning of their careers. “Just when the fun is starting comes the time for parting.”

AUmphress:JAJohnsonThe show was performed on the SFS’s stage and on a platform above and behind the musicians. The SFSymphony Chorus sang from on high from left and right box seats. Narrow, gray cylinders formed a kind of skyline onto which evocative images were projected: news reels, war ships, the American flag put us in the historic setting. Especially effective were Coney Island images: Ferris Wheel, colors and lights. Michael Tilson Thomas premiered a concert version of On the Town, 1992, with the London Symphony Orchestra. He had written a new edition of the music with Charlie Harmon and David Israel. Comden and Green contributed a new narration. The May performances at SFS were the same version. Performers this spring had appeared in the Broadway revival, 2014. Clyde Alves as Ozzie, the role created by Adolph Comden; Jay Armstong Johnson, Chip; Tony Yazbeck, who won the Astaire award for his Gabey; Megan Fairchild, Ivy; Alysha Umphress, Hildy, Betty Comden’s role. Isabel Leonard who has performed internationally in opera was Claire. They are the legendary triple threat performers of Broadway: they sing, dance, and act. A perfect example is the sailor who performed back to back flips and whipping ballet turns. The narrators were David Garrison, an actor with a long list of stage and TV credits, and Amanda Green, the lyricist daughter of On the Town’s lyricist, Adolph Green.

Photos from top: Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director, San Francisco Symphony; Leonard Bernstein; Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Alysha Umphress and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Hildy and Chip in Broadway’s On the Town, 2014.

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.

 

San Francisco Symphony Celebrates Sibelius, Rediscovers Schumann

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a great, very great performance of the Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47, by Jean Sibelius, and Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Opus 97, Rhenish, by Robert Schumann, November 13-15, at Davies Hall. If by any chance you missed hearing one of these concerts, you have a chance for more Sibelius tonight, Nov. 18, when pianist Leif Ove Andsnes performs works of Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin. And, another chance for a grand Schumann symphony, Nov. 19-21, when MTT and the SFS perform Schumann’s symphony, No. 1, Spring.

220px-Jean_sibelius-2  This is the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’s birth, Dec. 8, 1865. Thanks to the milestone quality of that event, the SFS and others are performing more of his extraordinary music. One may hear Finlandia on the radio from time to time, and its stirring beauty is ample reason for Finland to celebrate Sibelius as a national hero, but he did write more. This program opened with his tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, Opus, 22, no. 2. Written in 1896, it is one of a group of works based on Finnish legends, Four Legends from the Kalevala. Its beauty is misty, ethereal, and even a bit eerie. Tuonela was the “land of death” in Finnish myths. The Swan of Tuonela floats on a large river which circles Tuonela and sings. The images of the tale evaporate into the music or the music calls the mythic characters into being. From which ever direction one experiences it, The Swan of Tuonela, as performed by the SFS is beautiful and chilling.

Leonidas Kavakos Photo: Marco Borggreve Leonidas Kavakos performed the Violin Concerto (1904) with stunning virtuosity. This is not stunning in the sense of “looking good.”  This was stunning in the sense of shivers up the back bone and eye popping brilliance. Mr. Kavakos made the first recording of the original version of this Violin Concerto, in 1991. That version is said to be even more demanding than the one more often performed. The winner of major international violin competitions, he is far more than a majestic technician; he is a magical musician. The concerto moves from very delicate, dream-like music into deeply passionate music with the full orchestra. As a moody, pessimistic sound takes over, the solo violin emerges to play an astonishing cadenza. Sibelius uses the voices of the orchestra and of the soloist in opposition and also brilliant unity. As a composer, Sibelius can only be described as Sibelius-esque. The music finds enchanting melody and also heart pounding syncopated rhythms. This SFS performance with Leonidas Kavakos took one’s breath away.

220px-Schumann-photo1850Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a pianist, conductor, music critic, journalist in addition to being a great composer. We are all lucky that MTT and the SFS are launching a project to record Schumann’s four symphonies. The performance, Nov. 15, was the first of the performance recordings. It was glorious. Maestro Tilson Thomas captured the energy and motion of the music. One could almost feel the rolling power of the water in the waves of sound. The SFS played as though their hearts were unleashed. The symphony opens with lively music; we are there on the Rhine, that ever present symbol of Europe. The second movement has the rhythms of dances. The minuet and a German folk dance combine. Schumann had called it “Morning on the Rhine.” He and his wife, Clara, had taken a trip to the Rhineland together and remembered it as a tranquil, happy time. Schumann had seen the cathedral at Cologne and the installation of a Cardinal there. The solemnity of the fourth movement is his representation of the grandeur of the place and event. In the end, wisps of the early themes reappear; the timing slows as the great river swells and travels toward the sea. The the symphony has an internal effect on the listeners. The audience was buoyant, energized, smiling as though the movement of the music had infused them all with the spirit of the natural force of the river.

mtt_09-black_0598-5-120x67 Three cheers for MTT’s Schumann project with the San Francisco Symphony. This great, Romantic composer has not been given his due in recent decades. Music lovers should not miss this experience. The time has come to rediscover his music.

Pictures, from top: Jean Sibelius; Leonidas Kavakos, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony; Robert Schumann, photograph from 1850; Michael Tilson Thomas, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony.