Tag Archives: San Francisco Symphony

Thibaudet & Capucon: An Astonishing Performance

Gautier Capucon, ‘cello, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, presented a duo recital, December 2, 2018, at Davies Symphony Hall, which was in every way great. Each is technically above brilliant. Their musicality opens new experiences of being in the music. The program selections were outstanding, presenting sonatas that reflected the composers’ greatness and differing characters.

Jean-Ives Thibaudet

Gautier Capucon

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)  Claude Debussy’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor (1915) was an eye-opening visit to Debussy’s imagination and boundless invention.  Known as an “Impressionist” composer, a title which gives a false, gauzy idea of his music, this sonata was altogether more modern sounding than most “new” music of our current time. It demanded a wide range of technical mastery from the ‘cellist: vibratos, pizzicato, glissando. Watching the music being made grabbed the attention as much as listening. The pianist also changes technique and mood incredibly quickly. There is no point to guessing what comes next. Debussy changes the colors and the tonal direction of his music. The exhilarating final movement leaves the audience gasping for breath from this rapidly turning dance and also in amazement at the virtuoso music making.

Johannes Brahms(1833-1897) Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 38 (1865) is a grand, musical landmark of music for the two instruments. It is fascinating in its combination of play with musical forms and the sense that an overarching meaning arises from what is built out of sound puzzles and structures. Brahms explores how many variations he can make with a five note phrase. In Brahmsian fashion, the music is sweeping, broad, embracing while it is, underneath it all, built so neatly. The second movement, Allegretto quasi menuetto, goes beyond its minuet inspiration. Brahms’ delightful dance opens up the view from the Sonata. Now it overlooks a vast, sunlit garden. It is a lighter and brighter dance than humans in Eighteenth Century clothing could jump into; Thibaudet and Capucon took over as though the music had been written for them. The final Allegro continues to explore the fugues of the first. It is powerful, all encompassing music. Yes, here we are with Brahms. The immense energy and technical power of the performers was astonishing.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)  

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 19, is gloriously melodic, far reaching, and generally just gorgeous. It has drama, sadness, charm. The interplay between the ‘cello and piano is balanced as one instrument flies on lyrical wings and the other travels into distant lands created by diversity of sounds. Capucon and Thibaudet shared the world of this music with obvious respect and generosity. There is something about love and something about elegance revealed in the journey from the first movement, Lento-Allegro moderato-Moderato to the closing celebration of Allegro mosso–Moderato–Vivace. The audience did not stand, it levitated on Rachmaninoff’s music.

The artists responded to the cheering audience with three encores (“Oh, look, they’re coming back!”) Again, the musical choices were not only brilliantly performed, they also created a mini-program of stunning music and emotions. First was Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” Opus 34, no.14; then, Shostakovich’s Scherzo (3rd movement) from Cello Sonata in D minor, opus 40. The artists sent us all home with Saint-Saens, The Swan, from The Carnival of the Animals. Exquisite.

Look for Mr. Thibaudet in San Francisco, April, 2019, on a program with famed violinist Midori. He and Mr. Capucon continue their partnership in concerts in Australia, Antwerp, and France. Each will perform around the US with symphonies from coast to coast. Don’t miss them.

 

 

San Francisco Symphony Presents Triumphant Beethoven’s 9th

San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, led the SF Symphony in a dramatic, exultant performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, November 24, 2018. The program opened with Seven Early Songs by Alban Berg. Overall, the experience left the audience on its feet cheering and seemingly not sure what to do next. Leaving appeared to be out of the question. Soaring above the chairs was much more likely.

  Alban Berg     Berg’s Seven Early Songs were written between 1905 and 1908 to be sung with piano. The orchestral score was not published until 1969. The songs are lovely, lyrical pieces set to the poems of seven poets. There are glimmering moments reflecting the natural world and Romantic reveries. The music has delicacy even as the songs express personal longing. Although the composer’s name can make some listeners apprehensive, in these songs Berg was not in his dissonant realm.

The soloist, soprano Susanna Phillips has a clear, charming voice which was the perfect match for the music and the poetry. Good news: the performances of Berg’s Seven Early Songs were recorded for SFS Media.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (written 1822-1824) is great, enormous, gorgeous, heart-rending, uplifting. It is a grand, musical summation of what’s good about Western Civilization. It celebrates the values of brotherhood, unity among differences, equality, freedom, joy in life. It lifts the top of one’s head off and cheers the heart. The SFS performance was splendid, capturing the mystery as well as the expansive energy of life. Performing with the SFS were the SF Symphony Chorus and four soloist singers. These do not join in until the Finale. All were excellent: soprano Susanna Phillips (pictured above),

(L to R): mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Nicholas Phan, bass baritone Davone Tine.

The giant, first movement is mysterious, disruptive, anxiety provoking. There is struggle and fear, but there is also a persistent forward motion that pushes the soul of the music onward. The Adagio has a loving expression; it is a tide pulling us–sometimes unwilling, sometimes just tired–by our hope and care. And then, the Finale. The Ode to Joy sings out as though our hearts will burst with hope for our highest selves to prevail through love and simple but ecstatic joy in friendship and living. At the end, the music speeds up, scampers, runs and jumps like an endless number of clowns happily tumbling out of a tiny car. I think that might be us: salamanders, penguins, humans; the jumble of life being alive.

The hopes that are vaunted in the Ninth are the same ones dashed when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. Beethoven removed the dedication to Napoleon from his Third Symphony, the Eroica (written 1803-1804). It is a tribute to Beethoven’s dedication to these values that, now deaf, he still celebrated them with music from his heart and every fiber of his being. If he could keep his vision alive in terrible times, can his audience hesitate?

The performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the performances of Michael Tilson Thomas’ From the Diary of Anne Frank the week before were programming to honor the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

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 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

 

 

 

San Francisco Symphony’s “American Optimism” March 17

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, presented a brilliant, diverse program, March 17, 2018, at Davies Symphony Hall. Given the title, “American Optimism,” the program offered the works of three very different composers: Charles Wuorinen’s world premiere, Sudden Changes, Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 26, and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. Wuorinen and Copland are both American composers. Prokofiev’s Concerto was premiered in Chicago with Prokofiev as the soloist.

Charles Wuorinen ( New York, 1938–)

Sudden Changes, Short Fantasy for Orchestra (2017), Charles Wuorinen’s premiere commissioned by the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, was a serious delight. It was serious as Wuorinen’s music is always serious: complex, varied, intellectually and musically challenging. It was a delight in its sprightly temperament, witty changes of rhythm and mood, and the way his music rewards one’s close attention. This listener especially appreciated the rhythmic changes: a break into jazzy sounds, a walking rhythm. There was also surprising and welcome lyricism. Wuorinen was Composer in Residence for the SFS, 1985-1989. He also directed the programs of New and Unusual Music, the SFS’s forum for contemporary music. He received a Pulitzer Prize in Music and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His work in multiple forms–chamber music, opera, ballet, orchestral works–is performed worldwide. Michael Tilson Thomas, introducing Sudden Changes, reminded the audience of the composer’s deep ties to SFS. The Maestro lowered his voice when he mentioned that Wuorinen explores “new dimensions” of (whisper) twelve tone writing. Michael Tilson Thomas knew that news could be scary. However, everyone in the fully packed hall stayed put and heard something fresh and engaging.

Sergei Prokofiev (Russia, 1891-1953)

Prokofiev, while vacationing on the Brittany coast of France, 1921, wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 (Easter break is coming; what are you going to do?). It is the most popular and critically acclaimed of his five piano concerti. It combines great musical variety with steel trap focus and unity. Prokofiev’s gifts as a pianist must have matched his genius as a composer; the soloist’s part is absolutely stunning. Pianist Behzod Abduraimov’s performance was astonishing. He has virtuoso, knock your socks off skills but also embodies profound understanding and connection to the music. One characteristic of this concerto is the balance between piano and orchestra. The orchestra is an equal player in what Prokofiev referred to as an “argument.” The first movement, Andante-Allegro, opens with a clarinet solo in lyrical melody. The orchestra joins in and then, almost as a surprise, the piano enters with energy and elan.

Behzod Abduraimov ( Uzbekistan, 1990–)

The dialogue between orchestra and piano begins. A new theme is introduced; the orchestra returns to the clarinet’s theme while the piano projects a variation evoking wisps of memory.  The movement ends with the two forces in a dissonant harmony. The middle movement is Theme (Andantino) with five variations. These include one with jazzy syncopation, one with an airy, celestial feeling. At the movement’s end, the partners’ contest has the orchestra playing the original theme in the original rhythm–which is half time of the variation that preceded it– while the soloist plays double time. Bassoons and strings begin the closing movement, Allegro ma non troppo. The piano enters with a contrasting theme. Slow woodwinds are singing. The piano makes an ironic reply. The eye opening, virtuosic Coda seems to explode as the pianist, moving so fast that his hands were a blur, plays “double note arpeggi.” Let’s just say incredibly difficult and incredibly fast. The Concerto ends in fortissimo splendor.

Aaron Copland (New York, 1900 – 1990)

Copland’s Third Symphony (1946) contains the theme of his famous Fanfare for the Common Man. Even now, hearing the trumpets taking their time to announce and salute the Common American Citizen, it makes me sit up straighter and remember being a mid-western child saying the Pledge of Allegiance, late in the 1950s. The Fanfare came about because, in 1942, Eugene Goossens, Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares for brass and percussion. All were prominent composers; most wrote fanfares celebrating a US ally or military unit. Copland stated later that “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Working on the Third Symphony from 1944 to its premiere in 1946, Copland wanted it to have “an affirmative tone…it was a wartime piece–or more accurately, an end-of-war piece–intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.” It does. While it has no specific, recognizable program or narrative, the symphony as a whole is a magical ride from the first movement, Molto moderato, with simple expression, to the fourth, Molto deliberato (Fanfare)–Allegro risoluto. A very deliberate and resolute Allegro. This writer uses the word “magical” which would not have been appropriate in 1946 when so much blood, hard work, and dedication had brought American society to a peak of optimism. Copland is the composer most able to express the essence of America’s best idea of itself and faith that the country could become just that.

Photograph of Charles Wuorinen by Susan Johann courtesy of www.charleswuorinen.com

SF Symphony & Boyreko: Entertaining and Enlightening

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Guest Conductor, Andrey Boyreko, February 24, created a world of exciting, entertaining music and deep, desperate music exposing the reality of Stalinist Russia. Boyreko showed that he was the master of the lyrical, dynamic, and challenging Bernstein works as well as Shostakovich’s Symphony. The program included Divertimento (1980) and Serenade (1954) by Leonard Bernstein. These great pieces were performed with verve, enthusiasm and tremendous musicality by the SF Symphony. Part of the salute to Bernstein in the year of his 100th Birthday, the performance proved that the artists of the SFS have wholeheartedly embraced Bernstein’s music and do a brilliant job of communicating it to their audiences. Divertimento has eight movements, each one completely different: from the Waltz and Mazurka to the Samba and Turkey Trot, and because it is Bernstein, the Blues. Sometimes fun or funny, always totally original, was a terrific example of Leonard Bernstein’s inventiveness and ability to make music of every kind.

Andrey Boyreko (Left), Leonard Bernstein (Right)

Vadim Gluzman, the Guest Artist, solo violinist, demonstrated why he is celebrated world wide. In his comments online, quoted from the music journal, Strad, he says that Serenade is about love. That sums it up. Bernstein uses the theme of Plato’s Symposium with each philosopher in attendance choosing to express a different kind of love: physical, mythic, dancing, dedicated. Mr. Gluzman truly captures the high spirited and loving feelings of what is actually complex music. His whole presence played with the characters of the music and the visions of Bernstein. If you have any chance to hear him perform, do not miss it.

Vadim Gluzman

The second half of the program was Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47 (1937) by Dmitri Shostakovich. It is interesting to me that I heard several times before the concert the “official” response from an unnamed, Soviet critic*, saying that the Symphony No. 5 was “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

The problem is more with those who hear or read that without knowing what Shostakovich faced in his life or cannot imagine living in a totalitarian state. There were those who took that comment to mean that this enormous work by one of the greatest composers was somehow a step back from his true art. I cannot accept that idea. To hear this music is to hear protest in the rapid, almost rasping repetitions by the violins and the nearly ear splitting high notes that come again and again. It is a symphony of beauty and rage. Its militaristic sound comes to the audience as irony, making bitter fun of the militaristic regime which put poets and artists in the gulags to die and persecuted Shostakovich to the point that he would stand outside his house late at night so that when “They” came to take him away, “They” would not disturb his family. This brilliant, heart wrenching symphony is no step backward. It is a blatant, powerful act of resistance available to all who will listen. Guest Conductor Boreyko and the SF Symphony propelled this alert to all humans into alarming, moving, completely unique music. Lengthy, standing applause for Vadim Gluzman, Boreyko, and the Symphony demonstrated that the San Francisco audience got it.

*There are various theories of the identity of the critic. some believe Shostakovich himself put it out. If it did come from him, the irony runs deep.

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

BEETHOVEN & STENHAMMAR: BLOMSTEDT & OHLSSON, FEB.8-10

The San Francisco Symphony has a great program coming up, February 8, 9, & 10, Davies Symphony Hall. Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor Laureate of the SF Symphony, will lead the SFS and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and the SFS in Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2. The concerto is so exciting, one sometimes feels not just on the edge of one’s seat but on the edge of one’s seat on a roller coaster. There is an exultant, thrilling sense to it which makes audiences embrace it. Ohlsson is well known for his mastery of Chopin’s perfect piano jewels; the Emperor concerto will reveal him in Beethoven’s expansive energy.

from left: Beethoven, Herbert Blomstedt, Garrick Ohlsson

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) is considered by many to be Sweden’s greatest composer. He was also widely admired as a great pianist.

Wilhelm Stenhammar

Herbert Blomstedt, Music Director and Conductor of the SFS from 1985-1995, has led San Francisco audiences to discover and love the works of other Scandinavian composers, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. While Stenhammar began his music studies in Stockholm, he continued in Berlin and became attached to the works of Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner. After writing his Symphony No. 1, Stenhammar decided to “free” himself from late Romantic German music. His later work, such as Symphony No. 2, leans toward a more classical style. He was Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden’s first, full time, professional Symphony. He died very young, age 56, of a stroke. However, February 7 is his birthday. This is a great opportunity to hear his work and celebrate this great Swedish artist.