Tag Archives: Michael Tilson Thomas

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.

San Francisco Symphony: Tchaikovsky and Barber

mtt_06-white_0403-400x400The San Francisco Symphony, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, presented Russian and American classics, October 3, 2015. The program embodied the great, universal emotions and actions of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6 in B minor, Opus 74, the Pathetique, and the intimate, personal emotions of specific memory in Samuel Barber’s, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24. The fascinating program led to thoughts of how great art connects us to one another by starting with the most singular, immediate experiences to find the universal or starting with the grandest, earth spanning experience to find it  again in the solitary, human heart.

Samuel_BarberComposer Samuel Barber wrote Knoxville: Summer of 1915 soon after reading James Agee’s prose poem of that name. Although Barber grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and Agee in Knoxville, Tennessee, they shared childhood experiences of lying on family back yards in the summer evenings, porches, main streets, trolleys, family characters. The music matched to Barber’s selections from Agee’s work encapsulates that time and place so clearly imprinted in individual American lives. Program note writer, James M. Keller, quotes American opera star Leontyne Price: “As a Southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father…my home town….You can smell the South in it.”               Guest artist, soprano Susanna Phillips has a lovely stage presence and sang well. She was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra which made the lyrics hard to understand, but, when she was heard clearly, she succeeded in presenting the peaceful contentment of a summertime full of familiar events and happy to be uneventful.

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composer_05_2Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #6 can trick the listener into a mistaken, waltz induced optimism. The first movement, Adagio–Allegro non troppo, begins with very low, very quiet notes. It is slow and serious; it may foreshadow doom. The next two movements are so unlike the first that one might think they were randomly put together for the Pathetique. They demonstrate the extent of Tchaikovsky’s gift for variety of emotion and style. He expresses the range of human feelings in the glorious melody and inventive rhythms he creates. The second movement, Allegro con grazia, seems to promise triumph, life embracing life. Then, in the third, Allegro molto vivace, a march insistently piles cloud upon cloud and marches onward as though lines of marchers overtake each other in near collision, force multiplying force. It ends with enormous bursts of energy, always convincing the listener, even the listener who has heard it before, that this is how it will end. It does not. Out of the breath between the movements, the lament arises. Adagio lamentoso –Andante, the final movement, harkens back to the beginning but takes us further as we have already traveled through other worlds created by the life in the middle of the symphony. The music has changed and has changed us. Its nearly unbearable sadness encompasses the greatness of human life and the painful secret of human life. It ends quietly as though the sound itself has no sound. Tchaikovsky died just nine days after the premiere. The San Francisco Symphony contributed a noble performance of this universal masterpiece.

The program opened with the West Coast premiere of Dispatches (2014) by Ted Hearne. MTT introduced the work by offering an idea of how to experience it, greatly appreciated advice.The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony, based in Florida and founded by Michael Tilson Thomas. Dispatches challenges the audience by abrupt changes between expressing traditionally “musical” music and excursions into sound design, the composer’s re-do of Stevie Wonder, mechanically rearranging electronic sounds, and more. At one point, a voice emerged, shouting out something hard to understand. It was easy to assume it was part of the sound mix, but from the looks on the faces of the musicians, it was not.  The work was conducted by Christian Reif.

th-4POST-SCRIPT: THE AUDIENCE  Performers say they can feel the energy or attention or lack of either in their audience. The other 1999 people in the concert hall can affect one’s experience of the music. Antsy, noisy, clasping their brightly lit cell phones, quiet, attentive; they make a difference. The convention of not applauding after a movement in a symphony is not something everyone knows. In the course of experiencing Tchaikovsky’s 6th, it can make a huge difference if many in the audience burst into applause at the end of the third movement which is not the end of the symphony. That and a loud call for “Encore” happened October 3. MTT turned part of the way around on his podium and said that he just happened to have something more. Yes, the fourth movement. While feeling prickly, after a while one must recognize the good news: this audience cadre is (1) here and (2) excited and pleased about what they are hearing. All of that is good.

This Hedgehog has maintained the childhood habit of counting up how many movements are coming at the beginning of each piece on a program. Many in the audience read their programs while the music is being played; one might hope they would count, too. On October 21, 2001, Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski led the SFS in performance of his own work, Music at Night, and Tchaikovsky’s 4th. Before beginning the symphony, Skrowaczewski turned to the audience and asked them to remember that despite the long pause before the final movement, the symphony was not yet over. It helped, though this Hedgehog gasped audibly at the end of the third movement, her emotions having been strained to breaking. SEE: Interview with Skrowaczewski in The Hedgehog, Vol.4, No.1, Fall, 2006.

Pictures: Michael Tilson Thomas, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony; Samuel Barber, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1944; Susanna Phillips; Tchaikovsky; Davies Symphony Hall, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

 

 

 

Beethoven: The Marathon Man

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

YEFIM BRONFMAN with San Francisco Symphony

YBronfmanYefim Bronfman, pianist noble, performed Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, January 22, 2015. For those who were listening, their hearts could never be the same. The performance was awe inspiring. Mr. Bronfman plays with power and tenderness. Brahms gave him a masterpiece of emotion that waves over all like a force of nature, and Bronfman was the right master to make it real. Much though it captures that inevitability of nature, the wave following the next wave, it is a work of human art. Mr. Bronfman succeeded brilliantly at bringing that force to life bigger than life. It reaches into one and brings back memories and feelings that one was not aware of having. A woman leaving Davies Hall, said to me, “I can’t help it.” She was talking about her tears; she could not help it because why they came was a mystery. It is ravishing music which Mr. Bronfman created in the most immediate, stunning way. Music is a physical thing. It changes the air around us. It takes physical effort to make music. One could see Mr. Bronfman’s left foot beating out a rhythm on the floor, alternating with his right foot on and off the pedal. His touch on the piano is light, and he brings out the lyricism and loveliness of Brahms’ seemingly endless soul of gorgeous melodies. Hats off to Michael Grebanier, Principal ‘Cellist of the SFS, for the beautiful ‘cello solo he played in tandem with the piano. The silken sound of the ‘cello made the audience hold its breath at these amazing musical moments. It was an astonishing performance.

BrahmsABergpictures: above, Yefim Bronfman; L-Rt, Brahms, Berg

The SFS also performed Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. Maestro Tilson Thomas addressed the audience to explain what would happen in the music and put everyone at ease about hearing reputedly difficult music. Seeing Robin Sutherland, SFS Keyboardist, seated at the celesta, one could expect something magical.In fact, it was very magical music with rhythmic inventions and interesting use of stillness. The Three Pieces are Praeludium: Slow; Reigen: A little hesitant at first-Light and winged; Marsch: Moderate march tempo. There are moments when the music is not only light/not heavy but seems to be light/not darkness. It suggests the movement of light as we see it reflected on an insect’s wing or changing the face of water. It races, alters our perceptions, bounces off of surfaces as it changes its meter. The concluding Marsch reveals that this is not coming to a good end. There is a collapse of structure. Berg called for the “large hammer ‘with non-metallic tone.'” It is an ending that brings to an end all the light and lightness that preceded it. This is MIchael Tilson Thomas’ 20th Anniversary as Music Director & Conductor and his 70th birthday. MTT’s gift for the art of program planning as well as bringing out the best of the wonderful SFS musicians is an ongoing celebration.