Tag Archives: Richard Strauss

Esa-Pekka Salonen Debuts as Newly Named Director SF Symphony

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

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

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

Richard Strauss

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

Jean Sibelius, 1913

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Ax & SFSymphony: Mozart & Schoenberg, A Brilliant, Varied Concert

January 13, 2018, the San Francisco Symphony performed a sensational concert with pianist Emanuel Ax. The variety of challenging pieces chosen for the program demonstrated the excellence of the SF Symphony and Mr. Ax, surely one of the absolute top pianists in the world.

Emanuel Ax     First on the program was the Leonore Overture, #3 (1806). This overture, written with Beethoven’s only opera in mind, has so much energy and color, the listener can absorb the revolutionary new principles of freedom embraced by Fidelio, the female character who comes to rescue her lover, a champion of liberty. These were also Beethoven’s principles; they imbue the music with the celebration of the rights of man instead of the rights of dictators.

Ludwig van Beethoven

After the rousing beginning of the concert came Mozart’s Piano Concerto,No. 14, in E-flat Minor(1784). Complicated and beautiful, this concerto manages to offer inventive, complex music which is written so perfectly by Mozart that the listener absorbs its beauty rather than be transfixed by its complications. Mr. Ax transmitted the restlessness and concentrated construction without a hesitation. He so completely embodied the music that he and the SF Symphony nearly disappeared. The music became a living presence. The second movement, Andantino, came as a surprise. It was elegant, almost peaceful, an incredibly eye opening change. The Concerto ends with a rondo, Allegro ma non troppo. The rhythms are engaging; the movement sweeps the audience away to a new level of aesthetic excitement.

Wolfgang Amadeo Mozart

Matching the Mozart concerto with Schoenberg’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 41 (1942) was daring and brilliant. When Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas turns to address the audience, everyone present is tremendously lucky, about to be enlightened by SFS Music Director, MTT, about what we will hear. It was a very beneficial offering. In addition to describing the famous, or infamous, 12 tone method, MTT had Mr. Ax play some of the music from the Concerto as it would have been written in the traditional, major -minor system. That provided an “Aha!” moment. While I wouldn’t pretend to “understand” the composition principles, hearing that example opened a door. It was an intense, dramatic, performance. Both Mr. Ax and the SF Symphony showed that they were able to triumph in this “new” music as well as in the Beethoven and Mozart.

Arnold Schoenberg, photograph by Man Ray

The concert finale was Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, After the Old Rogue’s Tale, Set in Rondo Form for Large Orchestra, Op. 28 (1895). This piece has a special place in my musical education. In my elementary school in St. Louis County, one year, maybe during 4th grade, a Music Lady came to play music and talk about it. She played Smetana’s The Moldau and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. No Peter and the Wolf for us. Ever since that time, I have avoided Till because I remember being told that he was so mischievous, had so much delight in his practical jokes, that he was hanged. The story terrified me. Too much fun? Off to the gallows.

Medieval woodcut of trickster, Tilll Eulenspiegel, courtesy, San Franciso Symphony

Fortunately, I pushed that memory aside and enjoyed a performance that revealed the determined individualism of Till, a character in  many German legends. The music does not involve moralistic commentary. It plays hide and seek with Till’s personality and adventures. The concert, which had begun with the inspiring Leonore Overture, closed with an emphatic exploration of  a character who came to life on the outside of accepted society. The audience was completely charmed by Till and roared its approval.

 

 

Ax & Perlman: Dynamic Duo of Music in San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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