Tag Archives: San Francisco Symphony Chorus

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.

 

 

BORIS GUDONOV: SF SYMPHONY PRODUCTION Puzzles & Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Stanislav Trofimov

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

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

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

AMADEUS: Movie of Mozart with SF Symphony

Near the end of Amadeus, the award winning movie from 1984 which was presented by the San Francisco Symphony, April 6 & 7, with the SF Symphony present playing the film’s score and the SFS Chorus present performing the vocal music, there is a moment when a coffin is lifted out of a coach. As men walk forward carrying the coffin, the viewer noticed the coffin’s smaller end flap open and shut. Something was wrong with this picture. The coffin is tipped, a bundle covered in white cloth slides out; it lands on a pile of other bundles in a big ditch. That bundle was the body of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart (1756-1791) painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Dead at age 35, Mozart’s celestial music goes on.

This is a painful, gorgeous movie. Seeing it with live music accompaniment was a great benefit as hearing the music created in the  moment made Mozart’s life’s work all the more real. The SFS Chorus had provided the vocal music in the film, another plus to the movie/live music experience. Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, the Symphony, Chorus, Choral Director Ragnar Bohlin all deserved the continuing cheers of the audience. “Wolfie,” as his wife Constanze calls him in the movie, wrote more than 600 works. That’s right, 600 works of perfect beauty; turn off the computer, now ( when you finish this short article is ok, too.)

Tom Hulce enacted Mozart in Amadeus

Tom Hulce’s performance as the “loved by God” composer is breathtaking. He has the outrageous giggle, bawdiness, conscience-free, child-like behavior and the focused concentration of a true genius when at work. F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, the competitive, court composer devoured by jealousy, captures the many sides of a man capable of appreciating how extraordinary Mozart’s music is and still wanting to destroy him. Both actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards; that time Salieri won.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus

The movie is so powerful that it is difficult to remind oneself that this is fiction based on some historical fact and a lot of historical rumor. No one can know what caused Mozart’s death. His grave was not marked; there is no hope for posthumous analysis. Renal failure is one interpretation, but more than one hundred explanations have been given. The rumor that Salieri poisoned Mozart was alive and well long after both composers were gone. In 1830, Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian author, wrote a play based on the rumor. The movie is based on the play by Peter Shaffer who drew on Pushkin’s work.

The movie plus live music phenomenon is made possible by a fancy computer rig. One  could see the laptop on the Conductor’s podium. There was a pulsing, large, white dot and different lines which seemed to coordinate the entrances for music and chorus. Timing is everything. The live participants must not be even a nano-second early or late as the dialogue and some on-the-film music go on. It is a wonder. The 2018-2019 season offers films such as Jurassic Park and Mary Poppins with live music.

The problem with the rumor is that it is so believable. Artistic rivalry and deadly jealousy, not so surprising as one might wish. The audience experiences the suffering of a man who was, as the play’s Salieri sees, composing as though angels dictated to him. The loss of what more music he might have created is impossible to measure. Redwoods killed by drought, right whales going extinct, children made asthmatic by air pollution: all those losses of life and liveliness and the loss of Mozart himself. Humans got lucky that he was here at all. What if, after its few productions Don Giovanni had simply disappeared? We would all be less than we could be and not know it.

On The Town: Great Performers, Great Show

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

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

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

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

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

Beethoven: The Marathon Man

14708

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

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

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

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

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