Tag Archives: San Francisco Symphony

A Romantic Program: Schumann & Bruckner

June 21, 2024:  Do not be upset. I know that Bruckner is not labelled a Romantic composer, but he gave his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, Romantic. the name “the Romantic” after he completed it. Schumann, was a Romantic in his music and his life.  His Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54 was his only piano concerto, but it is a perfect one. Why are these two composers on the same program? Each one created a change in the art. Schumann’s significant change is a new way to make a concerto. Bruckner made lasting changes in the development of symphonic movements. There are stories behind each innovation.

Robert Schumann, composer (1810 -1856)

THE COMPOSER

He looks so troubled in this picture. For a long time I have felt that Schumann did not get enough attention in our modern and/or post-modern era. Very unfair. As you see in his dates, he lived only 46 years. Mozart and Mendelssohn both died before they reached 40. Sadly, that is one of the facts people will note. Surely, Mozart and Mendelssohn deserve every possible praise, but the brevity of their lives, and of Schumann’s, should be on some kind of celestial list. And Schumann spent the last part of his life in an asylum. He fell in love with Clara Wieck, widely recognized as the great concert pianist of Europe. To complete the romantic story, her father would not allow them to marry. However, they married anyway. She continued to perform, to teach, and to compose. Her work supported the family. She had eight children. She performed her husband’s music and would listen to the new works. Schumann was very intelligent in other arenas, too. He founded a journal, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, in 1834, and wrote for it and edited it for ten years. He had studied law at Leipzig and Heidelberg, but he was a musician. Music and Clara were his life.

His Piano Concerto in A minor, Opus 54 was something new. He began a work he called Phantasie, in 1827. In 1839, he published an essay about piano concertos in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. He did not like the existing concerto form of the orchestra and soloist being separated mainly to show off the virtuoso piano performance. He imagined more interaction of the orchestra and soloist making the music together.

Clara Schumann, pianist, composer, wife of Robert Schumann (1819 – 1896).

THE CONCERTO

Schumann wrote that “the orchestra, no longer a mere spectator, may interweave its manifold facets into the scene.”  He wrote four more attempts at the new concerto, but they were only attempts. Clara played the piece and declared the Phantasie good. “The piano is most skillfully interwoven with the orchestra; it is impossible to think of one without the other.” Schumann was not there yet. It did not get published; Schumann felt something was missing. Schumann revised the Phantasie in 1845, making it a three  movement concerto. It may not be the most challenging concerto, but he brought together orchestra and soloist together to make music. It is an act of beauty. The “interwoven” sources of the music also weave a spell for the listener.

Yefim Bronfman, Pianist

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the soloist, Yefim Bronfman, made the music play above merely wonderful. Schumann would be happy to know how seamlessly the music came through the team work of all. When the piano introduces itself at the beginning, the oboe and bassoon present the theme. Schumann made the work without the usual orchestra and soloist’s separate excitement. The idea of connecting the roles of soloist and orchestra is present throughout. Schumann himself wrote the piano’s cadenza, and it is  glorious. None of the orchestra’s instruments is lost. The first violins swell as the piano presents a second theme. A solo clarinet is heard clearly over the quiet playing of the strings. This concerto shows what is created when every instrument’s character plays itself and is part of the company as well as having its own, individual, musical life. There is little one might write about Yefim Bronfman. His performance was beyond extravagant superlatives. He plays the soul of the music. There are places in the Concerto when the piano is delicate, almost quiet, small. Those moments were some of the biggest experiences of the Concerto. The audience could not let him go. There were, maybe, six encores. After the first two or three, Bronfman played a Rachmaninoff piece, Prelude in G minor (op. 23  no. 5), it had unique rhythms and a changing pattern. Fascinating and strange. The audience carried on applauding and shouting bravos until a few at a time gradually trickled to the exits.

Anton Bruckner, composer, organist 1824-1996

THE SYMPHONY

The SF Symphony led by Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, gave a powerful and insightful performance of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, Romantic. The orchestra represented Bruckner’s unique approach to every note. This is a great symphony in every sense of the word; the music is marvelous and the symphony is a long one. Bruckner gives the listener new sounds and new roles for particular instruments. There are dissonant notes and momentary rests. They are surprising. Then, the listener realizes that these novel aspects are part of Bruckner’s mystery. Here is a master of orchestration and counterpoint who knows the use of an out of the way path wins the music lover’s attention. The Symphony No. 4 has musical references to hunting in its Scherzo and other movements. The horns are the stars of this Symphony. One can picture the “nobility” riding through a forest. This is part of the Romanticism that was sweeping across Europe. Movements develop slowly; there  will be a change to lively dance music; then a wistful encounter of characters. Bruckner must have surprised himself so much as his audiences were surprised when, long after the Symphony’s debut, he wrote a note of what images could float before one’s eyes:

“Medieval city- dawn-morning calls sound from the towers-the gates open-on proud steeds the knights ride into the open-woodland magic embraces them-forest murmurs-bird songs-and thuse the Romantic picture unfolds.”*

There are more wind instruments playing music that does suggest the natural world awakening, and, through the grandeur of the Symphony, there are suggestions of folk music. Bruckner’s view is broad as though he looks across all directions for the vast earth, brooks, and trees and stretches his musical vision to encompass the living world and even beyond. He takes our breaths away in a dazzling finale that draws together darkness and distant light.

THE COMPOSER

Bruckner’s life could have followed his father’s and grandfather’s paths as a schoolmaster and organist in the Austrian village of Ansfelden When his father died, his mother took him to St. Florian’s, a monastery-school. Bruckner’s attachment to St. Florian’s lasted throughout his life. He began teaching music at St. Florian’s soon after his education there ended. Before St. Florian’s he had music education through his father and, when his father was ill, Anton played the organ in the church. He spent ten years on St. Florian’s music faculty. He left to live in Linz, 1856, and began to write seriously. There was a popular song for male-voice chorus, “Germanenzug,” 1863; Psalm LX11, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, 1863; Symphony in F minor, his first symphony, 1863; a great Mass in D major, his first mass, 1864. Beginning in 1855, he studied counterpoint and harmony with Simon Sechter. Bruckner felt he was not sufficiently prepared for composing. Sechter was considered the best teacher, and Bruckner spent six years studying with him although Sechter was in Vienna and Bruckner in Linz. Then, he took up the study of orchestration and musical form from Otto Kitzler, also considered the best teacher in these areas. Assigning himself to these studies reveals Bruckner’s hunger for learning and perfectionist tendencies.

Life in Linz was obviously more stimulating for Bruckner than his previous home. In Linz, he wrote two more symphonies; one in D minor -called Zero Symphony – and Symphony #1 in C minor. He wrote two great Masses: one in E minor, 1866; and one in F minor, 1867-1868. The E minor mass kept to strict polyphonic style for an 8 part chorus and brass instruments. The F minor established a new kind of “symphonic mass,” for orchestra and chorus.

If Linz was a helpful atmosphere for him, when Bruckner moved to Vienna, 1868, he began a period of creative production. He had been studying his music theory lessons and still taught music and played the organ. It was a hard working life. When he arrived in Vienna, he was able to succeed Sechter’s position as professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory and had private students. The University of Vienna gave him a position in their faculty, too. Before Vienna, he had had a nervous breakdown. Overwork or something physical? There is no answer, except that Vienna gave him so much more. All his training and work opened the door to important positions. Starting in 1868, he was the court chapel organist, and from 1875 onward he was Vice Librarian and Second Singing Master for the choristers. These positions lack lofty names, but they added to his financial security and visibility.

Bruckner saw Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser, in Linz, and traveled to Munich to see Tristan and Isolde. He met Wagner in 1865 and became a Wagnerian. This placed him in the midst of battles between followers of Wagner and those who preferred Brahms. Some leading critics, especially Eduard Hanslick, made it difficult for Bruckner’s work to get the approval and attention needed to move his work forward.HNe toured as an organist. He performed in Paris and Nancy, 1869, and London, 1871, performing at the Crystal Palace  exhibiton five times. His virtuoso organ playing and his improvisation on the organ fascinated audiences. It is said that his improvisations were spectacular. Later he made journeys within Germany: Leipzig, Munich, and Berlin were frequent venues. There were also conductors who were enthusiastic about his music. These were Nikisch, Levi, Mottl, Mahler, and Ochs. His symphonies and masses were greeted with admiration or dislike, again because of the politics of Wagner vs. Brahms. Mahler especially supported Bruckner’s work. He made the first pianoforte arrangement of Symphony No. 3 and conducted the first performance of Symphony No. 6, in 1899.

Anton Bruckner’s made changes that contributed to the development of symphonies. As he was a dedicated student of orchestration, harmony, counterpoint, the changes will mean the most to musicians and students, but the changes affect what an audience hears. (A) he introduced a third subject in the exposition. (B) A tendency to telescope development and recapitulation which make the movement split into 2 main parts. This is most noticeable in the first and fourth movements of his Symphony No. 9. (C) shifting the power center to a finale which can end with repetition of the main themes of early movements (D) linking movements by shared themes as in Adagio and Scherzo in Symphony No. 5 and Scherzo and Finale of Symphony No. 4.

These innovations stepped away from the classical forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Bruckner broadened the possibilities of great symphonies.

*Quotation taken from SFS program note by james M. Keller.

Gemma New Conducts SF Symphony Brilliantly

Conductor Gemma New brought her musical brilliance and personable presence to Davies Symphony Hall, May 10 & 12. On May 11th, she led the SFS in the same program at UC, Davis. It was a program of music with distant origins. Overture, was created in Poland by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz while Poland was occupied by Germany, 1943. Englishman Edward Elgar wrote his beautiful, tragic ‘Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85, in 1919. Where did that music come from? Elgar had suspended his composing from the beginning of World War I. The horrors of the war kept his writing to brief, minor pieces. This music came from England but also from the fields and trenches of Belgium. Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, Scottish, 1842. While Mendelssohn’s music was inspired by his visit to Scotland, its history, impressions of its dramatic seascape, and dances, Mendelssohn’s music was about music. It is a great symphony.

Gemma New, Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Gemma New was called to replace Conductor Marta Gardolinska who had to withdraw due to a serious family illness.

A successful Polish conductor, Ms Gardolinska champions Polish composers. For that reason, Grazyna Bacewicz’s Overture opened the program. The music did not have its premiere until 1945. Bacewicz began as a violinist at the Warsaw Conservatory. In the 1930s she studied with the famous teacher, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris. This overture has so much great music in such a short time; it runs only 6 minutes. It is stunning to realize this and other works came forth from a terrible historic time. Warsaw began its rebellion to try to shake off the German hold, August 1, 1944. The Soviet Union’s Red Army did not bring the expected aide. The soldiers parked outside Warsaw, allowing the Germans to kill another quarter of a million Poles. As they left, the Germans set off the dynamite and wiring to explode and destroy all of Warsaw. In the midst of this, Bacewicz’s mind was active. The timpani opens and playful strings join in. She uses dissonance and some abrasive sounds, but it is always a musical language that one believes. There is a lovely and strong flute and then an exciting, delightful forward charge for the orchestra. I hope we may hear more of Grazyna Bacewicz

Sir Edward Elgar, 1857-1934

Pablo Ferrandez, ‘cellist

Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E minor is one of my favorite pieces of music. I am a choreographer and chose the last two movements of this work to choreograph and perform as part of a dance concert on the program of Britain Meets the Bay, sponsored by the British Council. To choreograph this music, I listened to it maybe more often than the composer and also studied the war. On this program, the ‘cellist was Pablo Ferrandez. He has a unique approach to the music, playing it in his own interpretation. He occasionally bows very slowly across the ‘cello producing a disappearing sound. His touring this season includes major orchestras across the US: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Seattle. In Europe he will perform in London, Rotterdam, Dusseldorf and more. Conductor Gemma New led Ferrandez and the SFS engaging them in the strength and agony of the music.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847, composer and accomplished painter, linguist, poet. This is a watercolor of Lucerne by Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3 was dedicated to Queen Victoria. Mendelssohn, the Queen, and Prince Albert would gather and play new pieces by Mendelssohn. They formed a true friendship. In his program note, Larry Rothe mentions that Mendelssohn dropped the “Scottish” part of the title. There are sounds that can remind one of the winds sweeping around the islands and the mist that clings to buildings and people walking. The opening of the Symphony may recall the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’ probable lover. However, no story line appears. One may identify sounds that could be developed from the wind itself. This is also about relationships between disparate sounds, how they oppose other sounds, and demonstrate they are alive by the motion of the rhythms. The music travels through moments when one could imagine folk dancers out doors, but an adagio appears after that mode to a contemplative, mysterious movement beyond specific thoughts. Once more, the music leads ahead of any “ideas” to label it. The quiet of the symphony changes to a sense of victory leaving behind any mysteries or cold winds. It reassembles itself and carries on. This is a great symphony. Oh, I wrote that at the beginning. It bears repetition. Listen to Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3, again.

Please note: A post about conductors who are women will follow this tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL SIBELIUS: ESA-PEKKA SALONEN

The All Sibelius performance, March 14, was certainly one of the greatest concert programs I have ever heard. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, presented a program of Finlandia, Opus 26 (1899); Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 (1905), with violinist Lisa Batiashvili; and Symphony No.1 in E minor, Opus 39 (1899). Each piece offered unique musicality. In the Violin Concerto, it seemed that Sibelius had discovered new notes which made sounds we had not heard before.

Jean Sibelius, Composer (1865 – 1857), Finland

Finlandia may be the most familiar of all national anthems (with some apologies to France’s La Marseillaise*) Finnish history was about continual resistance while unable to fend off Sweden’s dominance since the 12thc. or the relentless interference of Russia. In 1894, Nicholas II became the Tsar.  He demanded the February Manifesto that curtailed civil rights. In 1899, the Russians closed newspapers. An innovative way of announcing Finnish identity developed. A public show demonstrated Finnish history through tableaux and accompanying music and spoken narration. The tableaux started with beginnings of Finland, moved through the 17thc. in the Thirty Years War, and a short Russian hegemony in the 18th c. The ending was “Finland Awakes!” The program was supposed to gather charity for suppressed journalists, but the proclamation of Finnish nationalism was obvious. Sibelius and others were asked to contribute music. At first, Sibelius seemed not to recognize what he had made. Once he knew its strength, he rewrote it. In its first years, it was banned. Other countries gave it different names. In the Baltic countries, also dominated by Russia, it was just called Impromptu. It is a magnificent announcement of freedom and Finnish identity. While it is great music to hear, its power calls out to the  listener whether Finnish or  not.  Seeing Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct it was thrilling. Sibelius answered his own question: “Why does this tone poem catch on with the public?…The themes on which it is built came to me directly. Pure inspiration.”

Violinist Lisa Batiashvili, soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47, with the San Francisco Symphony.

Music scholars and commentators will state that Sibelius composes with “profundity.” I experience the music as a profound look at life and the language of music. However, I cannot decide what Sibelius discovers and measures and understands in the music he creates. I have had teachers who liked to say that if that picture could be written, the artist would have written it instead of making it a painting. I think that is true except that most of us are only able to tell what we want to express in one art. For me, this Violin Concerto possesses mysteries of life and of music. Sibelius gradually reveals its musical truths. In the first movement, Allegro moderato, he provides a cadenza that is in the middle of the movement as a significant part of the concerto. The Adagio di molti, second movement, expands itself across a lake and seems to fly over a forest, but slowly. It is a vast presence which is the mystery. It does not pretend to communicate the mystery. One can only live it. The final movement, Allegro ma non tanto, has an emphatic but not overly quick dance stomping and turning. The rough dance movement creates the rhythm. The thing that is profound is easy to know. If we stop looking under every rock or examining every person, pine tree, or squirrel, it comes to us. Maestro Salonen brought out the delicate yet enveloping truth of this great concerto. He knows about Sibelius. Ms Batiashvili lifted the whole audience into the music’s life. The SFS played with profundity. This was a brilliant performance.

Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in E Minor, Opus 39 was the second half of the concert. The audience was on its feet cheering Sibelius, Salonen, and the SF Symphony. The program notes by James M. Keller describe how close Helsinki is to St. Petersburg both geographically and musically. Sibelius surely was familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Keller also points toward influences from Berlioz. As I read the information after hearing the Symphony, I thought that Sibelius may have admired their works but at most they were a jumping off point. I was relieved to read that Keller ended by acknowledging Sibelius’ “distinct language.” This symphony is uniquely Sibelius. As led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who called Sibelius perhaps the greatest Finn, I felt I was hearing the music as Sibelius would want it to sound. The music begins with Andante, ma non troppo-Allegro energico. There is a long, winding solo clarinet which attracts the timpani to play under the imaginative circles of the clarinet’s sound. This movement introduces the main themes and motifs of the symphony. That is what happens, but, of course, the audience does not hear the 4th movement rediscover these themes simultaneously with the 1st movement. Writers writing about music they have heard many times forget that the music can be new or seldom heard to the audience. It is a lucky surprise to charm us, turn the clarinet and timpani into the instruments of a snake charmer. We are hooked into this particular world of sound, all new.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the SF Sympony, conducts the All Sibelius program, March q4, 2024
The 2nd movement, Andante (ma non troppo lento) does begin quietly and slowly but not too slowly, as the description advises. There are moments that sound tragic; then, it expands into a large and angry message. There are references to recall the original themes, and this time it ends calmly. The 3rd movement, calls itself Scherzo: Allegro, but there is not a note implying a joke or lighthearted moment. It sounds more like a struggle; there are questions that cannot be answered. It ends without finishing the violent questions and suddenly, it stops. It leads to a wail of protest in the 4th movement. The strings bring in the 4th  movement, Finale (Quasi una Fantasia): Andante-Allegro molto. The music is serious and deeply emotional. It returns to the themes introduced in the 1st movement, only this time they are fortissimo in strings with winds and bass accompanying as the form of a giant kite made of the individual parts of the orchestra and Maestro Salonen breaks free and flies. The audience was on its feet, staring ahead, looking like something completely surprising had happened to them, cheering Sibelius, Salonen, and the SF Symphony. An experience. A marvel.

The SF Symphony stands to applaud Maestro Salonen at the end of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1. Maestro Salonen bows to the musicians.

Photos by Brandon Patoc courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

BARTOK’S FAIRY TALE OPERA: SF SYMPHONY’S BLUEBEARD

BELA BARTOK’S DUKE BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE: MICHELLE DeYOUNG AS JUDITH & GERALD FINLEY AS BLUEBEARD

Part II:  A FAIRY TALE OPERA

When the French author, Charles Perrault, published his story Barbe-bleu/Blue Beard, 1697, themes from the story had appeared in the 15thc. The themes included serial murders of wives and the importance for young women to obey their husbands in all details. When Bela Bartok decided that writing an opera would give his reputation a lift, he chose Bluebeard. It was to be his first and only opera. He wrote it in 1911 and entered it in a competition for a one act opera. It was refused. He offered it to the Hungarian National Opera; they also dismissed it as impossible to stage.

Bartok returned to his ethnomusicology researching music in Hungary’s forests and villages. During World War I, he returned to composing. The Hungarian National Opera asked Bartok for a ballet; it was The Wooden Prince. It debuted in 1917 and was a great success. After the warm reception for the ballet, the HNO made a double bill by adding Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Unfortunately, it had mixed reviews. It was, after all, a very dark story.

This was an era that sought knowledge of human psychology and brought forth theories of the unconscious. Sigmund Freund published Totem and Taboo, 1913. Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious appeared in 1912. Symbolism was a popular trend in literature and music. Debussy composed an opera of Maerterlinck’s Pelias et Melisande.The Barbe-bleu story inspired Maeterlinck’s play, Arione et Barbe-bleu

The performance, at Davies Symphony Hall, March 3rd, began with narration spoken by actor Breezy Leigh. Her introduction suggests that the strange story might be inside of the listeners. It never was a history; it may be a struggle in our psyches.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the SF Symphony, Conducts Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with singers Michelle DeYoung and Gerald Finley.

Despite the grim, gory story, maybe because of those aspects, the music and singing completely captured our attention. The singers became the characters. Mezzo-soprano, Michelle DeYoung, as Judith truly projected the new wife’s innocence, curiosity, proud demands she made of her host. Ms DeYoung’s voice was well suited to the emotions rebounding from happy to terrified. Gerald Finley, bass-baritone as Duke Bluebeard was splendid and horrible as the master of the Castle and keeper of his wives. SF Symphony’s Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducted the orchestra and singers with a deep understanding of mysteries contained in Bartok’s opera. He kept faith with Bartok.

This story is different from the Perrault tale. In Perrault’s, there are 6 wives, all dead, and hanging from hooks on the walls of an underground chamber flooded with blood. I remember that image from long ago when I read the story. The young wife is not given a name. Duke Bluebeard marries the younger sister of a neighbor family, leaves his castle, gives the new wife the keys. He warns her not to go into the chamber. She invites her relatives and friends to a party at the Castle. While the party continues, she sneaks away to open that chamber. She runs away from the bloody scene, dropping the key for that room. It is stained with blood that will not wash off. Duke Bluebeard returns, sees the key, and threatens to kill her, but his new wife asks for a last prayer with her sister. As Bluebeard attacks her, her sister and brothers kill the killer. The Castle and riches now belong to her. With her new wealth, she helps her siblings to marry well.

Blue Beard Illustration by Walter Crane

In Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, there are only 3 previous wives. Bluebeard takes Judith on a tour of the Castle. She asks for keys to each locked chamber. He tries to convince her not to examine all the rooms. She sticks to her position. The rooms contain things that show Judith more about her husband. This work considers colors like Prometheus does. There is a room with torture tools, the light goes red; another room has armaments, the light is yellow; a room full of jewels has golden light; a garden is blue-green; the fifth room shows Bluebeard’s properties in bright white light; the sixth is a lake of tears in shadow. Lighting is by Luke Kritzeck. Duke Blue Beard gave Judith chances to leave, but she insisted. She had the deadly virtue of sticking with her plan. Determination is her downfall. A lake of tears? Run,  Judith, run! She wants the key to the seventh chamber. The room is barely lit, but she sees three wives: the love of his dawns, his love of noons, the love of evenings. Judith will be his love of night. She will become mute and isolated. He leaves and locks the door.

Photos by Brandon Patoc, courtesy of the SF Symphony

 

Scriabin & Bartok; Prometheus & Bluebeard- San Francisco Symphony

Part I:  A Happening at the SF Symphony – Prometheus, Poem of Fire

The SF Symphony presented extraordinary works by Alexander Scriabin and Bela Bartok at Davies Symphony Hall, March 1-3. Prometheus, the giant Titan in Greek mythic history, was a rebel. He stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. He was punished by being imprisoned on a rock where a scavenging bird would forever tear out bits of Prometheus’ liver.

Scriabin’s Prometheus, the Poem of Fire, Op. 60 (1911) is the product of Scriabin’s belief that music could call forth visible colors, lights, and aromas. He wanted all those arts to be present in a grand Mysterium. Yes, it anticipated Happenings of 1968. He bought land in Darjeeling, India, and planned to have his ecstatic performances take place there. In the era of Scriabin’s work, there was exploration of spirituality, fabulous contact with unknown forces; Scriabin’s theater would enhance it all with “lights and mists.” His plans for the Mystery were never fulfilled.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of San Francisco Symphony, Conducts Prometheus, Poem of Fire; Jean-Ives Thibaudet at the Piano, photo by Brandon Patoc

The project at Davies Symphony Hall was the result of collaboration among Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Jean-Ives Thibaudet, acclaimed pianist, and Mathilde Laurent, in–house perfumer of Cartier. The SF Symphony Chorus added human voices to the music. This threesome of all-star leading artists must have enjoyed creating a grand performance from the mystery which Scriabin had left in tantalizing suggestions. In recent years, the concept of Synesthesia has found proof that about 3%-5% of the population does see colors matching sounds. Scriabin believed it was within everyone, but that has not been shown, not yet. The performance was fascinating. The music, sometimes light or intermittent, was interesting and able to weave the lights, colors, and scent into unified senses.

Example of lights which changed with connections to music. Photo by Brandon Patoc

There is a circular design of colored lights above the stage. The program shows that six of them are directly connected to musical notes. For example, F sharp and G flat are both in one dark purple circle. A flat is alone in red. The six notes that do not have designated notes are different colors: dark brown, orange, light brown, light green, and two dark green circle lights. Luke Kritzeck is Lighting Designer.

Three perfumes whirled into the hall. Mathilde Laurent created perfumes specifically for moments of the Prometheus story. At the beginning, “Avant/Before,” expresses earthy existence: rain, thunder, ice, vegetation. The second perfume, “XIII Heure/ The 13th hour,” represents the climax of the story and the music: Prometheus gives the gift of fire to humans. The three collaborating artists consider that gift is the source of human creativity, the origin of the arts. The final scent, “L’Apres/After,” shows the creatures now fully human and must be masters of their destiny. Ms Laurent chose bergamot, verbena, fresh grass conveying light and warmth. Various arts become the whole art: Jean-Ives Thibaudet making music by playing the piano, Mathilde Laurent creating scents to express the developing character of human life, Esa-Pekka  Salonen to conduct and combine the arts and their artistry. Ms Laurent felt the scents sent forth the “joy and hope” Scriabin and his present collaborators hoped would move us all in a grand union.

Photos by Brandon Patoc courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

SPECTACULAR CHAMBER MUSIC @ The Legion of Honor Museum

SPECTACULAR CHAMBER CONCERT @ THE LEGION

The Gunn Theater in the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was the site for a magnificent performance, Dec. 3. 2023. Gunn Theater holds three hundred and sixteen in a jewel box setting. The San Francisco Symphony presents chamber music concerts there through the season always featuring outstanding musicians. The music selections are usually something different, something new even if, as in this program, the music is very old.

The program was all trios; two by Bach and one by Schubert. Anton Nel was the harpsichordist for the Sonata No. 3 in E major for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1016 and the Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1029. Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the SF Symphony, was the violinist who leads the music in this Sonata. It was an audio treat to hear the harpsichord, especially as the Gunn Theater is far smaller than the Davies Hall. It awakens a different way to listen for the notes. In the Sonata No. 3 in E major the violin opens the experience with an expressive sound that seems to reach across broad vistas. It is followed by a delightful, light Allegro as though accessible to young people or even presented for the folk instead of the elite. Bach goes back to an Adagio – ma non tanto (but not too much)– which opens into keys unusual in a Bach sonata; that’s the new in the old. At the end, Bach allows the sound more energy and, as though on the brink of cliff, the music sweeps through the air on a lift off of counterpoint. Barantschik presented a marvelous touch from the elegance of the first Adagio to the delicacy of the second movement to the energy and reach of the finale.

Johann Sebastian Bach, composer (1685-1750)

In the Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV. Peter Wyrick played the cello, and demonstrated that the Viola da Gamba has a higher pitched string than the cello so he added a string to his cello. It gave the audience the feeling that they could notice how he bowed diagonally to make the higher sound. This trio was livelier than the one in E major. The playing of the harpsichord and cello was a pleasing sound as the two sound sources found places to alternate or reach over each other’s music. The three movements ranged from Vivace to Adagio to an exciting Allegro conclusion. Did you think that Bach could not be exciting? Listen to these elegant and totally innovative pieces; you will have an exciting surprise.

The trio included Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the SF Symphony, on the Naoum Blinder Chair, Violin. He has been concertmaster of the London and Bamberg Symphony Orchestras, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. He was concertmaster for major symphonic cycles with Michael Tilson Thomas, Rostropovich, and Bernard Haitink.

Peter Wyrick, ’cellist on the Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair, served as Associate Principal Cello, 2022-2023. Previously, he was principal cello of New York’s Mostly Mozart Orchestra and associate principal cello of the New York City Opera. His chamber music collaborations include Yo -Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Yefim Bronfman, Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Anton Nel, pianist, has an active performing life having performed with the Cleveland, Orchestra, Chicago , Dallas, and Seattle Symphonies as well as international venues such as Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, Suntory Hall, and in China, Korea, and South Africa, his home. He holds the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair at the University of Texas at Austin. In summers he is at the Aspen Festival and School and the Ravinia Festival and its Steans Institute.

Franz Schubert, composer, 1797-1828) (posthumous painting by Rieder, 1875)

Franz Schubert’s remarkable Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, D. 898 is a soaring, gorgeous forty minute long sail to happiness. I know that art connoisseurs are suspicious of happiness and beauty, but this is art of a different species. Schubert’s genius is above it all. When he wrote this music, he was thirty years old. He had only one year more to live and to create music that is essential for us, two hundred and twenty-six years later.

From the opening Allegro moderato, Schubert shows his originality by playing with the sonata form. He writes in “wrong keys” several times. It is a gentle wake up call to the listeners, “do not let the beauty lull you so much that you will miss the floating sensation and the changing scenery of sound. The composer, Robert Schumann, was especially taken by the first movement as “graceful and virginal.” The second movement, Andante, is slower, and this writer must use the term that pops up in others’ descriptions; it is dreamlike. And yet, this dream is not one for sleep or inactivity. It carries us along on a breath as though riding on a kite through a forest. The Scherzo offers surprise musical changes keeping the listeners just enough off balance to laugh at ourselves. Schubert closes with a Rondo: Allegro vivace. It leads our imaginations and memories to cherish the moment, so lovely but never lasting. Schubert was aware that he was terribly ill. He still shared joy.

This threesome will perform again at the Gunn on Jan. 28. That concert is sold out, but it is worth it to see if someone seeking snow goes to Tahoe. There is another concert on June 2 with the same noble artists, music by Mozart, R. Strauss, and Smetana. It is too good to miss.

 

 

IGOR LEVIT IGNITES DAVIES HALL: Part III, Recital

The San Francisco Symphony invited the fabulous pianist, Igor Levit, to visit San Francisco for a two week Residence. This is unusual. This writer and officers of the Press division of the SFS could not find similar events. Levit, relatively young at 36, is a sought after recording artist, performer with the world’s great orchestras, and recipient of prestigious awards. He is hot and, from hearing his remarkable performances, there is no indication that his place in the music world will cool off.  His recital on June 27 featured music by Johannes Brahms; jazz pianist and composer, Fred Hersch; Richard Wagner, arranged by the late and wonderful Hungarian pianist, Zoltan Kocsis; and Franz Liszt.

Levit’s Themes: The program was more than a collection of great works for the piano. The selections dovetailed with the previous programs played with the SFS. There are underlying themes connecting the music. Brahms’ Six Chorale Preludes were arranged by Ferruccio Busoni, the composer/inventor of the amazing Concerto in C major, performed by Levit and the SFS on June 22, 24, 25. Levit admires Busoni for his individuality, over the top piano technique, and his ability to arrange great music by Bach, Brahms, Bizet, Beethoven, and others. Levit has expressed his fellow feelings with Busoni who was also a searching intellect. Levit said Busoni is “basically saying the the job of the creator is to set the music free again. That means making your own choices, because how could you possibly believe that what you hold in your hands, the dots and the lines on paper, could ever be the last word?” This means that a sensitive, knowledgeable arranger – like Kocsis and Busoni both great pianists and intellects – are in a way recreating the music, like a fine conservator must not only fix an injured painting, but will be doing the painting again.

Levit also said that “the musical form, which is closest to me, is the variation.” Busoni’s Concerto in C major is gigantic and its third movement contains four variations. This is one of the aspects of the Concerto which excites Levit and his audience. As written in Part II of these articles, Levit finds the truth of the music in the variations. Busoni salutes great composers from the past in the Concerto, and Levit is able to recall/recreate their styles when he plays those references. In his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the Emperor, one could hear that two variations, one for the piano and one for the orchestra, are at the heart of the movement both in the sounds of the music and the structure Beethoven chose for these moments.

Johannes Brahms, composer (1833-1897)

Brahms’ Six Chorale Preludes was quiet and so beautiful that it nearly ached. These Preludes were part of his final, great work, Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ. These were composed in May and June, 1896. However, they were not performed until 1902. How sad that the great Brahms could not be present for the premiere. In 1902, Busoni selected six for which to create piano transcriptions. The chosen ones are Nos. 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11. While Busoni occasionally complained that Brahms did not progress out of his own style, Busoni respected him and his music. I remembered listening to a recording of the Six Chorale Preludes many years ago and feeling Brahms’ longing, resolution, and an acceptance that was not giving up. After hearing Levit play Busoni a few days before, it was very fine to hear Levit play this quiet, philosophical music in which dissonance entwines and moves the character of the preludes.

Fred Hersch, composer/Jazz pianist

Fred Hersch’s Songs Without Words, Book II, was a delightful addition to the program. Delightful does not mean simple. The music all has a “singing quality,” writes the composer, and it seems to this listener that some of them could be in the Variations folder. They are original and yet have references to sources such as Chopin’s Minute Waltz. In this collection, Hersch wrote The Two Minute Waltz that “is a humorous take,” he wrote, which could be “from a Rodgers and Hammerstein” musical. Among other references are the choro of Brazilian music which Hersch refers to as nearly a Brazilian “version of Ragtime.” Hersch’s Songs Without Words, Book II include Little Nocturne, Canzona, Soliloquy, The Old Country, The Two-Minute Waltz, and Choro de Carnaval. The Soliloquy is one voice which speaks from the left hand playing alone. In 2000, Hersch released the first set of six Songs Without Words, acknowledging and honoring the title given by Felix Mendelssohn for his classical beauties. It all ties together: on the Beethoven program, June 17, Consolation, from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Op.30 was the encore Levit performed.  Igor Levit planned a program that demonstrate his involvements to the audience. We noticed. My undergraduate college had a many decades old popular observation: Everything correlates. Levit saw to it that all three programs, despite having totally different music on each one, definitely correlate

.Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Variations or similarities: The second half of the concert presented mysteries, revelations, and thrills with two big pieces by big composers: Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Having been alerted in the first half that this is not “only” music, one wondered what Igor Levit had up his sleeve. Wagner’s piece came first on the program but historically came second. Take a look at the dates. Liszt, born in 1811, in Raiding, Hungary. Wagner, born 1813, in Leipzig, Germany. The Wagner selection, Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, had its first performance, in Prague,1859. Liszt completed his Piano Sonata in B minor, 1852-53. There is a reason for Levit performing the Prelude from Tristan und isolde and continuing with barely a breath between it and the beginning of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor. For one thing, the Liszt Sonata begins with music that sounds so much like the end of the Wagner Prelude. Remember: Liszt’s piece was completed six years before Wagner’s. The opera Tristan und Isolde did not appear until six years after Wagner’s Prelude debuted, though the Prelude is named Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, even though there was no opera to be “from.”

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) composer, famous pianist

Tristan and isolde: Listening to the Prelude, one could imagine the tumultuous and sexy relationship of Tristan and Isolde. It is both a long and short story. It is long because it can be traced to origins in the 12thc. CE. Or, if one wants, there are suggestions of a similar story back in the 6thc. CE, and that’s not counting its many variations. Deep into the Romantic movements in the 19thc., the story continues; it is very long. The variations can count, adding alternative motivations and outcomes that have branches of their own. The Tristan/Isolde love situation could merge into the Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot problem. Let’s not go there now. The short version is universal: Tristan travels to Ireland to bring Isolde (Yseult, Isseult, you choose) to Cornwall to marry King Mark, Tristan’s uncle. On the voyage, T and I take a love potion. Was it intentional or accidental? Did Isolde give the potion to Tristan rather than to the man who was supposed to receive it? The point is: T & I became lovers despite King Mark’s commitment and T’s loyalty. Was it a potion for eternal love or did it have a three year use-by date? Let’s go back: they loved each other but should not. There are, of course, variations across many centuries of how they die.

Both of these pieces have great drama. Liszt’s Sonata is noted among his repertory as one of the most unusual, maybe one of the most outstanding of his works. It is specifically a piece for the piano, composed and performed by Franz Liszt, recognized as the most famous pianist of the era and perhaps beyond. How do these two pieces end and begin? Very low chords with silence between. The listener anticipates but must wait before another low chord sounds. And the end – beginning is a quiet sound like “bump.”

In 1867, only two years after the premiere of the opera, Tristan und Isolde, Lizst transcribed for piano Islode’s final aria. The transcription became famous across Europe before the opera had been heard in most places. Putting forward another variation, Liszt, only two years older than Wagner, was Wagner’s father-in-law.

The Sonata in B minor could have four movements.  For the performance by Igor Levit, this program shows six: Lento assai- Allegro energico -Andante sostenuto -Allegro energico -Stretta quasi presto -Allegro moderato. It propels itself as one breath, thought, and energy. There were listeners who did not realize the Prelude and Sonata had been played together without a recognizable break for applause. The playing throughout was magnificent and revealing of what might be behind the powerful sounds. Mr. Levit Schubert’s Six Moments Musicaux, No. 3 in F minor (ending in F major), arranged by Leopold Godowsky as his encore. Franz Schubert belongs in this company of great composers who were also very great pianists. No one in the cheering, roaring audience wanted to leave.

*quotations from igor Levit from Corinna da Fornseca-Wolheim interview in SF Symphony program book, June, 2023. Quote from Fred Hersch provided by Mr Hersch in SF Symphony program book, June, 2023.

 

 

IGOR LEVIT IGNITES DAVIES HALL; Part I, Beethoven

Igor Levit, the astonishing, internationally celebrated pianist, came to San Francisco for a two week residency with the San Francisco Symphony. He performed four different programs plus an open rehearsal. The last of the four was a recital with surprises throughout. It added up to eight performances. Each one was remarkable for Levit’s brilliance as a pianist, his deep knowledge of the repertoire, and his musical choices. The Hedgehogs attended three of the four: all Beethoven, June 17; Busoni’s immense piano concerto, June 22; a recital with works by Brahms, Fred Hersch, Wagner, and Liszt, June 27. We were unable to hear the chamber music concert with members of the SFS. It must have been very fine, but our three musical banquets were quite filling for hearing, seeing, and thinking. In fact, they were also entertaining. This is the first of three articles about Igor Levit’s performances.

Igor Levit describes himself as “Citizen. European. Pianist.”

The first concert series offered two of the most well known Beethoven masterpieces: the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 73, called Emperor (1809), and the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica (1803). It was good to start our experience with Levit with music that is grand, complex, inventive and which we have heard before. I am not suggesting one could hum along, only that a listener’s memory might be able to imagine what Levit was doing with these landmarks of Western civilization.

He climbed inside the music. His partnership with the SF Symphony was a great match. The SFS, conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, played with strength and truth. It was not backing up the Visiting Artist; they were partners in creating their understanding of Beethoven’s music. As Levit stated in an interview with Corinna da Fonseca-Wolfheim in the SFS program book, “my goal is not to sound like Beethoven. What I do all day long is try to understand, why did Beethoven decide to write a piece this way and not the other way? But at the end of the day, I’m the one who plays it, not him. So, the goal is kind of to have it both ways.”

The “Emperor” concerto premiered, in 1809. Musicologists have considered it the apex or fulfillment of Beethoven’s “heroic era,” though this concerto came a year after the 1802-1808 noted as an era of prodigious creativity. Beethoven found a totally original way to open the concerto. The stunning beginning would awaken the audience to the realization that they were experiencing music presented in a new way, and they would need to listen in a new way, too.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, Composer (1770-1827)

The first movement is the longest Beethoven wrote. It is inventive in every facet. Curiously, it is the increasing presence of dissonance that serves as an audio seasoning and builds excitement. Beethoven then brings in quiet moments which stand out even more in contrast with the vigorous new movement. Levit let the Adagio un poco mosso run right into the final movement, Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo which became a frequent way to perform this concerto. The first movement is very long; this combination balances the music in real time. It spurs the music audibly onward and upward. The slower movement presents two chorales; first one for the piano, and then one in the orchestra. There is just a slight change of rhythm in the piano’s accompaniment. Being slightly off of the orchestra’s rhythm focuses the piano carrying the melody.

As Beethoven rounds the course he created for himself and the “Emperor,” he allows a breath of silence and lowers the pitch of the music. The finale allows a new theme to take a powerful bow in the appropriate tempo. Now, a Beethoven special: a romping German folk dance. The timpani takes over in another quiet moment, and there is an enormous burst of bright stars at the end.

Watching Levit perform is nearly so interesting as hearing him play. Fortunately, his quirks do not go on long enough to take attention away from the glorious music he makes. His first gesture was to hold up his left arm high and a little to the left with palm up but not flatly up. It seemed to express “there we are,” or maybe “this is the music right here.” His gestures and looks were often related to the music and his partners, Conductor Salonen and the SFS. He looked at the orchestra players either to acknowledge their playing or perhaps to send a mental message. He turned his head to see Salonen. Occasionally, he looked out to the audience and up to the audience in the choir loft as well. He leaned back to stretch his legs under the piano. Although one Bay Area writer observed that Levit was doing these motions because he felt so good about being in San Francisco, I saw him do the same exercises/expressions/quirks in a video of him performing the “Emperor” at the 2020 Nobel prize concert. It is him. Why would he pretend?

After many, many curtain calls, Igor Levit played one of Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Opus 30, “Consolation.” It was calming, quiet, heartfelt, beautiful. The audience, gasping, cheering, and applauding kept clapping, but he was gone for now. Mr. Levit’s residency was off to a tremendous start

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director, San Francisco Symphony.

The San Francisco Symphony was stellar and brilliant performing the “Eroica.” Music Director/Conductor Salonen kept the orchestra in carefully ordered form. This symphony is written so that the audience cannot anticipate what will happen next in the music. Even though the “Eroica” keeps the classical form of four movements, what Beethoven does within the form is new. The second movement, “Marcia funebre: Adagio assai,” has the funereal feeling and pace. While this Symphony No. 3 was composed, Europe was on fire with revolutions and imperial wars. There would be many military burials and also soldiers with dire injuries visible in all towns. Conductor Salonen did not let the music sit in sadness. He kept it active and alive, as much the march, not only  a funeral. That approach meant that it was not a huge departure when the third movement, Scherzo: Allegro vivace, rushes on the scene. The music propels itself as though on quickly moving feet. At the final movement, the theme splits itself in two directions which grow into twelve variations. Multiple layers of music and multiple actions make an amazingly full, lively world. This is where Beethoven meant to go. The audience was treated to a fresh, exciting, Symphony No. 3. Salonen and the SFS made it new.

 

SF Symphony: War Requiem by Benjamin Britten

May 18, 2023, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco – The San Francisco Symphony performed the enormous and heartbreaking War Requiem, Opus 66 (1961) with soloists Jennifer Holloway, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Brian Mulligan, baritone; the San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Joshua Habermann, guest conductor; and the Ragazzi Boys Chorus with Kent Jue artistic and executive director conducting. The soloists, soprano, bass, and tenor performed with deep understanding of the texts and, in addition to the power of their voices, communicated the painful emotions of this work.

Britten assembled a multitude of artists in groups and individuals, not as one voice and not with one anthem. There were two different and sometimes opposing texts: the Catholic mass for the dead, Missa pro defunctis, and poetry by Wilfred Owen, one of England’s World War I poets. There are nine of Owen’s poems. In case you are not familiar with Wilfred Owen’s work, it is worthwhile to know that he fought in the war but was not enthusiastic for it. Before the war, Owen had considered entering the ministry. Beginning December, 1916, he was on active duty in France, then spent 5 months in a hospital, then was sent back to France. He received the Military Cross award. He fought in the trenches, saw hideous wounds and deaths among his comrades, and, while leading his company across the Sambre Canal, was killed by machine gun fire. His death was on November 4, one week before the Armistice.

Benjamin Britten, composer (1913-1976)

In Britten’s Requiem, the mixed chorus and the full orchestra perform texts from the Missa pro defunctis in Latin. The male soloists with a chamber sized group of the orchestra sing the Owen texts in English. The Ragazzi Chorus is not seen. It sings its parts of the Missa from behind the wall enclosing the chorus loft. Their sound is quiet and sounds as though coming from a great distance.

Britten uses all traditional parts of the Missa: Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, then closing with Libera me. In this music, these sections become an opera of belief and also condemnation. The solo soprano is in the chorus loft with the Symphony Chorus, but they are behind her on their higher rows. She sits alone in the front and lowest row. She appears like a figurehead on a ship or the ancient Oracle, even though she declaims Christian faith and imperatives. Her first majestic singing is in the Dies irae. The chorus does not adopt her outlook. Instead, they sound weak and doubtful. Then, in an example of the opposition of the Latin text and Owen’s poems, the tenor and baritone sing from the deeply ironic poem, “The Next War.”

Wilfred Owen, soldier, poet (1893-1918)

If one had merely listened to the unique orchestration and the use of bells and many versions of percussion including tambourine, triangle, castanets, Chinese blocks, snare drums, bass and tenor drum, that listener may have awakened to Owen’s poem, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is sung by the tenor and bass with the chamber orchestra. It is Wilfred Owen’s answer to the story of Abraham taking Isaac to a place of sacrifice. Abraham begins to follow G-d’s request to sacrifice Isaac, but then an angel, sent by G-d, stops him, saving Abraham from the murder of his son and saving Isaac’s life.

In the Owen poem, Abraham kills his son. The music is harsh, discordant, and, despite the horror of the death, it is worse because it is roughly torn from the story most listeners will know. As that breath taking, wrenching event is told, the boys of the Ragazzi can be heard singing softly, far away.

“When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,/Saying, lay not thy hand upon the lad,/Neither do anything to him. Behold,/A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;/Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him./But the old man would not so, but slew his son, -And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Rather than the war to end all wars, this was a war that killed a generation of men.

The Sanctus opens with the soprano magnificently singing while the chorus chants. It has become a song of praise. The last movement, Libera me (Deliver me) the Baritone sings“I am the enemy you killed, my friend/I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./ I parried, but my hands were loath and cold.”

 Together the tenor and baritone sing: “Let us sleep now…” as though they have learned from engaging in the battle with each other, as though they could go forward peacefully. They cannot do it; they are dead.

(L to R) Jennifer Holloway, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Brian Mulligan, baritone

The War Requiem ends with the boys’ chorus, mixed chorus, and soprano singing “May angels lead you into Paradise,/may the martyrs receive you” and “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,/and let everlasting light shine upon them./May they rest in peace. Amen.”

The prayer sounds peaceful. Their rest could be tranquil. I do not think we have traveled through the War Requiem in order to believe the dead, piled up like giant haystacks, are all better now.

Benjamin Britten was a pacifist. Wilfred Owen, after having considered a life devoted to a church, found that he could not trust the institution of churches. He could find no Christ in the churches because killing was not only allowed, but supported. The Agnus Dei/Lamb of G-d section of the Missa, repeats “Lamb of G-d, who takes away the sins of the world,/grant us peace. “ But they sing “Grant us peace.” only once.

A portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten from 1948.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SF Symphony Premieres of Music & Artists

May 11, 2023, San Francisco Symphony, Davies Hall: It was a great night for the music. There were thrilling debut performances of music and by the artists. Violinist Hilary Hahn was scheduled to perform Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77 with the SFS. Illness made it necessary to cancel. What could take the place of Brahms and Hahn? The fully packed audience learned the answer: pianist Bruce Liu, a great pianist who gave us Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. #3 in C minor, Opus 37 (1800). This was Mr. Liu’s debut performance with the SFS; he was the complete artist for Beethoven. The program opened with Darker America (1925) by William Grant Still. It was the SFS’s first performance of this classic music which combines music, history, and emotion. One can hear the composer’s thoughts. Closing the event was Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40 (1898) by Richard Strauss. Strauss is best known for his operas; this piece for orchestra presents the drama that propels his operas. The conductor, Rafael Payare also made his debut with the SFS. He is in his fourth season as music director of the San Diego Symphony and his first season as music director of the Montreal Symphony. He has conducted major European orchestras Including the Vienna Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, London Orchestra, and more.

Rafael Payare, conductor   Music Director, Montreal

Maestro Payare shares his electric presence with the orchestra and audience. His gestures are clear and his physical movement expresses the rhythm, shape, and character of the music. He is exciting to watch and more than that he reaches into the orchestra players’ musical beings. Their music is alive with energy in response to him, making a thrilling concert.

William Grant Still, conductor (1895-1978). Photograph by Carl Van Vechten (1949).

Composer William Grant Still created prolific and varied works: 5 symphonies, 4 ballets, 9 operas, more than 30 choral works, chamber music, art songs, and pieces for solo instruments. His work was successful and embraced by music institutions. He was the first African-American composer to have an opera, Troubled Island, produced (1949) by the New York City Opera and the first to be produced by a major opera company. His first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (premiered in 1931) was the first performance by a major American symphony orchestra of a work by an African-American composer. His career was one of many “firsts,” and his work surely deserved the recognition. He was also the first African-American to conduct major American symphonies, the Hollywood Bowl and the Rochester Philharmonic. He studied with George Chadwick who encouraged him to create music out of an authentic American voice. He also studied with Edgard Varese, the avant-garde French composer. Still was grateful for his time with Varese although he did not follow his avant-garde way. He dedicated Darker America to Varese. Still wrote a program note describing the changing emotions of this tone poem. It depicts the “American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows …”  There are three themes: sorrow, hope, and a “theme of the American Negro.” The music suggests their hardships. The English horn begins the sorrow theme; hope is found in the “muted brass accompanied by strings and woodwinds.” The music does not promise a happy ending. Sorrow and hope lead the people to overcome their struggle. The themes join in the ending notes, more subdued than joyful. Although only 13 minutes long, this piece is musically refined, powerful, and moving. One hopes that SFS’s performance will begin a revival of this piece in other major halls.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer (1770-1827)

In his early career, Beethoven often performed piano concerts, includeding improvised music. His partnership with the piano meant that many of the pieces could not be performed by anyone else. It was also true that his piano music was too difficult for lesser beings. His realization of his progressive deafness led him to withdraw from his appearances. He could no longer do the piano parts he composed or sail through improvisations, creating as he played. The Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37 was probably written in 1800, and premiered in 1803. For music specialists, Beethoven’s work is divided into three eras. This Concerto sits on the fence between the first and middle eras. It maintains the purity of Mozart’s and Hayden’s classical style, but Beethoven’s energy and grand heart, convinces the Concerto to jump off the fence. As played by Bruce Liu, its invention and demand for a pianist of Beethoven-quality let us hear the greatness of the composer.

 

Bruce Liu, Pianist      Bruce Liu after winning the 18th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, 2021.

There was not a moment of the Concerto in which the listener could relax. This is not a warm bath of music. There are sudden changes of key and from soft to loud. The audience was literally on the edges of their seats, ears up, eyes open. Mr. Liu’s style is restrained, no wild arms flaring around; he sat quietly and opened worlds with power and finesse. The music pulses with feeling that makes it different from the earlier Beethoven and classical predecessors. Beethoven pushes humanity forward. His music demonstrates what humans could be and could do. Davies Symphony Hall seemed to levitate when the music ended. No one wanted it to end. After several curtain calls, we were surprised to see Mr. Liu sit down to play Liszt’s etude, La Campanella, which is based on a virtuoso violin piece by Paganini. Wishing Ms Hahn a speedy recovery, he said, “This is one for the violin lovers.” It is intricate, fast, and faster, making circles within circles of music like concentric roller coasters.

Richard Strauss, composer, conductor (1864-1949) Painting by Max Liebermann, 1918, below

Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40, by Richard Strauss, is called a tone poem as is Darker America. It is operatic in the sweep of the story of a Hero’s Life. It is the composer’s own story made into music. In a note to himself, Strauss wrote, “–the man is visible in the work.” The on-going debate over a program, story, or theme in serious music (and painting, dance, writing) was on his mind, and he went ahead with his own sort of program. There are dramatic episodes; it opens with a lush, passionate, bold depiction of The Hero. The music changes radically to abrasive, “cutting,” “hissing,” sounds; those words are written on the score. It is Strauss giving the critics and critical public a large and nasty presence in this music. SFS’s Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, played the violin solo majestically. His solo work was devoted to the part describing The Hero’s True Love. Strauss wrote to the novelist Romain Rolland that his wife, Pauline, was “very complicated … tres femme, a little perverse, a bit of a coquette, never the same twice.” The Hero and his True Love are playful, they follow each other and then stay away. In The Hero’s Works of Peace, The Hero goes to battle but also to make peace. The closing section is The Hero’s Escape from the World and Completion; his battles are over and the music becomes tranquil. One of Strauss’s friends protested the quiet ending. The composer changed it to something completely different, loud, profound, and fitting for the mysterious character of The Hero. Ein Heldenleben was more exciting than an action hero’s movie. Its rich, gorgeous music was even fun to hear.