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THE ‘QUARTER-STAGED’ ADAMS ORATORIO

THE ‘QUARTER-STAGED’ ADAMS ORATORIO

Those patrons streaming out at intermission missed the best part of John Adams’ massive and ambitious oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”

As in his earlier oratorio “El Niño,” this magnum opus links biblical narrative with modern-day people and issues via flashback and flashforward. Modern immigration, farm-workers’ rights and women’s activism enter into the scriptural accounts of Lazarus and Jesus, via the adroit texts compiled by librettist Peter Sellars, a frequent Adams collaborator.

If this succès d’estime was less than a success at the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus (Feb. 16), just pass the shears. The opening 85-minute act needs to be trimmed by half, focusing as it does, with a string of recitatives and soliloquies, on Lazarus’ being raised from the dead—-one of many miracles attributed to Jesus.

In contrast, the hour-long act two springs powerfully to life, a vital musical experience wrapped around Jesus’ passion and death, It is a self-contained entity, eminently suitable for separate performance with great effect.

Adams’ orchestra here finally becomes a dramatic force, with effusive brass and percussion leading the narrative in its jagged rhythms and harmonic instability. This is “gnarly” (his term, not mine) Adams at its most emotion-charged intensity.

His solo-vocal lines are demanding  and far-reaching in range. He again marshals a trio of countertenors in close harmony for commentary (much as in “El Niño”) and for voicing the role of Jesus. The 50-member mixed chorus does the rest—sometimes Jesus, sometimes a Greek chorus repeating visionary poetry.

(If there was a miracle this night, it was the vowel-obsessed SFS Chorus finally spitting out distinct consonants and making the messages intelligible.)

Linking the acts was the story of Mary Magdalene, partly from the Bible, partly from beyond, a woman caught between her religious fervor and obsessive passion. This emphasis was a conscious focus on women—subordinate in the Scriptures, yet so significant in the aftermath. This is played out in the hymns of Saint Hildegard von Bingen as well as the activism of modern-day figures like Dolores Huerta  and Dorothy Day.

For his texts, Sellars alludes to or quotes 20th-century writings of Cesar Chavez, Rosario Castellanos, Ruben Dario, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich and Primo Levi.

After the death and resurrection, Adams inserts a totally serene segment with the stylized sweet sound of frogs, delicately suggesting a renaissance awakening from the tragedy with promise of a brighter future. It is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Adams’ vast musical writings.

The huge opus was visually dramatized with stage, lighting, movement. Since the SFS veered away from terming it  “semi-staged,” we’ll call it “quarter-staged” without further quibble over fractions.

The three solo singers filled the hall with their outpourings, but more vehemently than expressively: The mezzos Kelley O’Connor (title role) and Tamara Mumford (Martha, her sister), and tenor Jay Hunter Morris. The modern and the biblical clashed when ancient figures were spotted running about stage in sneakers. Director Elkhanah Pulitzer was plausible blocking  the tableau-paced stage movement. Grant Gershon conducted with vehemence and rhythmic propulsion.

Berkeleyite John Adams, who has just turned 70  without conceding anything to old age, took bows afterward and was applauded more warmly than the work itself. “Back to the drawing board?”

Adams’ 2012 oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” San Francisco Symphony and chorus, Grant Gershon conducting; a partially staged production. Two hrs., 45 min. Davies Symphony Hall, S.F. (Feb. 16) For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.

MUSIC GOING STRAIGHT TO THE HEART

MUSIC GOING STRAIGHT TO THE HEART

LOS ANGELES—A symphony concert by Dudamel & Co. is not an event; it is an experience.

Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is transported to another world in conducting his Los Angeles Philharmonic. With a work like Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” (the suite), he is animated and as if in a psychedelic trance during the music, the whole score in memory, and faithfully giving visual cues to the players in unsurpassed efficiency. At the end, 10 seconds of rapt silence before he allows the applause. And then he steps OFF the podium (when was the last time you saw that?) and stands amongst his players, rushing offstage shortly after, as if still in that Old World somewhere between England’s Shakespeare and Russian ballet. His facial expressions, for those of us who could see them, reflect moments between entrancement and rapture.

The Dudamel experience has been fulfilling the audiences here for eight years and continues unabated. The same dedication marked his entire program, partly Russian, partly Shakespearean, all done by memory, with no score in sight.

Add to this impact the resonant acoustics of the 2265-seat (Frank Gehry) Disney Symphony Hall, where the sound of a fortissimo lingers endearingly in the air for a couple of seconds, as if caressing your ear—well, you have a real experience.

The Shakespearean theme was further carried forward that day (Feb. 3) with “(K)ein Sommernachtstraum:” A, or No, Midsummer Nights’s Dream, depending on the parentheses, written by Alfred Schnittke in 1985. Along with Sofia Gubaidulina, Schnittke was among the most prominent of the post-Shostakovich Soviet composers and, like her, he emigrated later on to Germany (thus the German title). He was among the most eclectic of composers, like a painter with 40 paint-pots, all of which he wants to put to use for one work. The backbone here is a dinky lullaby in waltz time which goes awry. He has rude low-brass interjections, offset against high tinkles of harpsichord, like an orchestra singing falsetto. The sound runs ever madder, and the flute enters out of sync. In the end, it’s Schnittke at his most irreverent AND most comic, with his satire running to an orgy of percussion, then a dance-band beat. This is the closest thing to sonic insanity, recalling Mozart’s “A Musical Joke” with all its wrong notes. By the end of it, you’re either laughing your head off or slipping on a straight-jacket en route to an institution.

The concert centerpiece was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the stunning thirtyish soloist from Germany and Georgia, Lisa Batiashvili. She brings a certain freedom to this too-familiar opus, playing unfettered, fearlessly, at times with her long hair flying. She brings freshness and boldness to this piece. Her cadenza bordered on the celestial, with a perfect ultra-high range and lovely tone. This, dear listener, is a talent!

The orchestra was lustrous. The Prokofiev was marked by exquisite lyricism in the violins and violas. It’s a showpiece of skilled orchestration, lush and vibrant, including a recurrent alto saxophone solo—an instrument that classicists encounter in both French and Russian repertory without a hint of jazz. Its timbre adds something approximating the human voice to the ensemble.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, heard Feb. 3 at Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. For info: 323-850-2000 or go online.

MAHLER’S GORDIAN KNOT OF A CANTATA

MAHLER’S GORDIAN KNOT OF A CANTATA

SAN FRANCISCO—The young Gustav Mahler undertook painting a huge canvas in his cantata “Das klagende Lied,” a rich hour-long piece undertaken even though he’d never heard a note of his own orchestration. This weighty vocal-orchestral opus unfurls a somber fairy tale in German—not Grimm, but at least grim—that got an even greater production from the San Francisco Symphony, which added sets, costumes in a lavish but stillborn near-operatic staging.

This flickering creation is an obsession of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, who keeps performing and reperforming it with his San Francisco Symphony over the decades.

If the resultant and rarely heard work is more noteworthy than successful, blame it on a young Viennese composer having great talent but little sense of theater or conciseness. Here his unique lyrical gift shines through as he slowly develops toward his unique musical voice, still retaining a lot of Wagnerian touches in the textures. That his orchestral balances and nuances worked so effectively was a brilliant and miraculous facet of a work flawed by his titanic, super-dimensional ambition and enterprise.

The piece differs from the far better-known Mahler symphonies, which provide many sudden shifts of mood and style. Here Mahler shows great continuity running through the three-part fairy tale.

Even in this elaborate semi-staging of Jan. 13-15, this “Song of Complaint” (or of Lament) sputtered along, as though beautiful singing was enough to bring it off. Here we ended up with the SFS Chorus, four solo singers, four self-conscious dancers/mimes who seemed lost most of the night, plus video projections, set, supertitles, even several offstage bandas (instrumentalists) supplementing the on-stage orchestra to provide the spatial and mobile effects.

The tale is straightforward. The brother finding the red flower in the forest will win the young queen’s hand. The Good Brother finds it but dozes off, whereupon the Bad Brother steals it, kills the Good one, and proceeds to the queen for marriage. Masked minstrel symbols pop up—theatrically, the one element that truly worked—along with a truth-telling magic flute revealing all, prompting the queen’s collapse in despair. And throughout the opus, like a leitmotif, voices repeatedly wail “Oh, sorrow!”

Mahler parceled out the solo vocal lines rather randomly, sometimes with the “wrong” gender singing.

At the end, the audience filed out quite coolly, without the ovations common for Tilson Thomas concerts.

The singers included Michael Koenig and Brian Mulligan along with Joélle Harvey and Sasha Cooke. Four designers supplemented the efforts of Director James Darrah. The SFS instrumentalists caught 101 nuances of the score, just so.

Preceding the long Lied were Mahler’s precious “Blumine” movement, with trumpet solo by Mark Inouye, and four of the “Songs of a Wayfarer” done quite beautifully by the delicate mezzo Cooke.

The next step? Just wait a few seasons, and the MTT/SFS team might find another go at this Gordian knot of a Germanic cantata irresistible.

“Das klagende Lied” by Mahler, in German, semi-staged, with the SFS and Chorus, among others. Jan. 13-15, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.

SHOSTAKOVICH, BERNSTEIN SURPRISES

SHOSTAKOVICH, BERNSTEIN SURPRISES

SAN JOSE, CA—The San Jose Chamber Orchestra has evolved over the years and appears to benefit from the transition. Formerly an almost-all-women ensemble playing only recent music, it now has a 50-50 gender balance and longer season while playing a predominantly 20th century repertory of better-known works written by concert pianists. It drew a good-sized audience at the Trianon Theatre Jan. 8. While the grand piano still overwhelms the otherwise bright and laudable hall acoustics, the theater (formerly Le Petit Trianon) is excellent in several regards downtown, among them free parking. And Music Director Barbara Day Turner brings a disciplined, stiff-upper-lip attitude to the podium.

The novelties in the concert were first, dividing up the members of the (East-Bay-based) Delphi Trio so that each played a separate solo in a separate work, and second, having the whole program selected by the Delphi players and not by the music director. They reassembled in the piece written specifically for them, the William Bolcom Piano Trio (2014), a quarter-hour work in sonorous reflections and forceful outbursts. Since Bolcom is a pianist, the piano is predominant and virtuosic, totally overshadowing the string players, who are muted much of the way. In this robust neoromantic score pianist Jeffrey LaDeur was in his element, most notably in the fast-flying finale with its “wrong” notes winging along animatedly.

The finest performance of the night however was by the highly promising trumpeter Mark Grisez in the Shostakovich curiosity Concerto No. 1 for Trumpet, Piano and Strings—one of the most unusual combination of instruments ever. LaDeur and Grisez played out a pantomime to dramatize the finale, upgraded here to a burlesque of a competition opus, with piano and trumpet crossing swords, eventually with LaDeur slamming down a chord petulantly and angrily and all but slamming down the piano lid. That brought down the house.

Grisez and his trumpet had a bright sharp-clipped tone of impeccable luster, stealing the show despite a subordinate role and too many rests (is it any wonder? Shostakovich used to play his piano part himself!).

I’m astonished that the young Leonard Bernstein’s 1954 “Serenade for Violin (and orchestra)” was not set to modern ballet by Balanchine or his dance contemporaries; the first such mention I’ve found is the version done by the Boston Ballet nearly half a century later. Was it because it’s too close to Stravinsky’s tonal style of that time? On the surface, it’s a meaty five-part work running 33 minutes, a volatile and unbridled piece wandering through many emotions. But Bernstein’s program delineates another dimension: Platonic dialogues by contrasting ancient-Greek figures, reaching back to his college major—–no, not music. It was Classics of ancient age, particularly literature and philosophy.

In each of the five sections the serenade builds on the previous material, much like the intellectual dialogues of old, only in music, not text. There’s a wild bacchanal, challenging the four percussionists, along with the outbursts of “a band of drunken revelers,” and a good bit of solo violin that sounded taut and acerbic. When the orchestra is agitated, unexpectedly the lyrical violin emerges, like the sunshine after a thunderstorm. I found violinist Liana Bérubé’s tone a mite severe, but she managed the double stops of the cadenza convincingly.

Robert Schumann’s surprisingly brief 19th-century Cello Concerto with its many leaps up and down the sound spectrum kept soloist Michelle Kwon on her toes. Although some of the notes were tossed off too casually, Kwon’s pitch was letter-perfect, and quite satisfying in the whizzing pace of the finale.

The 20-to-24-member orchestra of mostly strings, with more new faces this season than I could count, responded well to Turner touch from the podium, though the sound lingered on the ascetic side. Debra Fong is concertmaster of the SJCO, which Turner had founded in 1991. As for Grisez, he is a 2015 graduate of the SF Conservatory and already an intermittent member of the SF Symphony.

While the music and program this night were effective, the printed program was skimpy, lacking any explanatory notes about the music.

San Jose Chamber Orchestra, Barbara Day Turner founding music director at Trianon Theatre, San Jose. For info: (408) 295-4416 or go online.

POETIC, BUT NOT REALLY POE-ETIC

POETIC, BUT NOT REALLY POE-ETIC

ROHNERT PARK, CA—To catch important musical works, it can take an hour’s drive out of an arts capital to reach them. Credit the Santa Rosa Symphony and amalgamated choruses for bringing out that very eloquent but little-known choral symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Bells,” given in the concerts of Dec. 3-5 here. The composer called it his number one achievement.

Coming from his palette in 1913, the 35-minute piece contains some of Rachmaninoff’s most skillful musical effects. If you only know the big three piano-cum-orchestra opuses, then, my friend, you don’t yet know Rachmaninoff the deft orchestrator, the master of rich romantic textures who could also produce consummate articulation in a diaphanous orchestra.

Like the composer’s life itself, “Bells” combines both Russian and American strains, using poetry of E.A. Poe. The piece is poetic, but not really Poe-etic. It’s a very free adaptation of Poe into Russian, then set to music, and now translated back into English in an even freer adaptation (Is that Mr. Poe himself we see, turning over in his grave?).

Its four movements present distinct themes, doled out to individual vocal soloists: childhood, wedding days, sheer horror (my favorite) and deathly doom-in-tomb. The finale contained the most memorable singing by far on opening night, with veteran operatic basso Philip Skinner and his fiery, booming voice in total command, as if prepping for Verdi’s “Requiem.”

Cuing his forces throughout, the wiry French Music director Bruno Ferrandis had clearly worked hard readying this rarity, and his orchestra did the rest. Though the audience reaction was tepid-to-polite, perhaps because the last movement is the most subtle and somber, the interpretation was exquisite, one of the best at the SRS.

Bells play little role in the music itself. Childhood is marked by silvery flute effects and a humming chorus, plus high (angelic?) female voices. The wedding section turns both sensual and tender, white the “horror” segment bristles with turbulence and dissonance. The chaos reflects souls in distress, as the chorus turns chromatic, and harp arpeggios emphasized the instability of the infernal scene.

Effective and attractive instrumental solos peppered the program, coming from SRS principal players Roy Zajac, Elizabeth Prior, Adelle-Akiko Kearns and Jesse Barrett.

While unusual, a choral symphony is not a new concept, used as format by Berlioz (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) and others.

Also featured was Elgar’s best and most played work, the “Enigma” Variations, that very durable mystery opus, with each variation bearing a friend’s initials. There were multiple mysteries which Elgar was not forthcoming to reveal. Why enigma? Who was the secret lady friend taking an unmistakable sea voyage in the variation marked simply “****”? What is the hidden principal theme which is never played (as he confessed), which no one can identify? (When asked if he’d reveal that theme, he always growled “Never!” leading some to believe that he quoted part of the song “Rule Brittania.”)

For more information, visit the Santa Rose Symphony event page.

BERLINERS GO VIENNESE IN SAN FRANCISCO

BERLINERS GO VIENNESE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Both sides of the Berlin maestro Simon Rattle were evident and resplendent in the tour concert given on Thanksgiving eve: The formalist/modernist in the Second Vienna School, and the sensual interpreter of Brahms’ Second Symphony—two realms of music many miles apart, though all heavily weighted to Austria. The impact was quite overwhelming, with wild audience huzzahs at each conclusion.

Half the program went over to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, a thicket of often rebellious, impenetrable music that rewrote almost everything you learned in the Theory of Harmony class. This is music of rebellion. This trio of ground-breakers with works from 1909-1915 reflected the growing instability within the old order of the European political establishment. Schoenberg was the eldest, tearing away from Mahler and R. Strauss, in foment with his shards of sound, and rarely a theme of more than four notes, sometimes with three separate elements fighting for visibility simultaneously, and only glints of tonality. His large orchestra and heavy percussion suggest a restless giant in “Five Pieces for Orchestra.” The most memorable segment is the gentle, genteel “Colors,” where a chord is held, but with different instruments coming and going.

In “Six Pieces for Orchestra,” Webern’s orchestra is both transparent and aphoristic in its articulation. There are the sonic wonders of celesta, bells, tamtam that have you wanting to listen with three ears. The processional pace of the work ends in a rousing finale with brass and drums.

Finally we have the Berg “Three Pieces for Orchestra,” an opus both emotional and intense. I liked the restless and effusive “Reigen” segment () coming in big swells, reaching climaxes, then receding. And it ended with the passionate March. With the instability of those allegedly “devilish” tritone intervals. A century ago, these selections set dozens of people running to the exits; when heard Nov. 23, I saw none of that, just a great ovation at the end.

In an unusual linkage, Rattle tied them all together, as if they were one 14-movement opus 51 minutes in length. Fine. But I’d opt rather for a 30-sec. break after each composition, so that listeners could tell unmistakably what was Berg, what was Schoenberg.

The Berliners have evolved since the heyday of the late Herbert von Karajan. Where, in that era, the musicians resisted mightily allowing a second woman into the orchestra (the super-clarinetist Sabine Meyer), this time I counted 13 women in the ensemble. Male or female, this is one of the truly great orchestras in the world, and their every tour concert is one to treasure.

They finished up with a nuanced, mellow, and sensual reading of Brahms’ Second. Ah, that robust octet of string basses! The velvety horns, the sumptuous celli, the dancing nature of the Allegretto, the immense shaping of dynamics, and the dizzying intoxication of the exciting finale. Rattle shapes this symphony exquisitely, even in little hesitations. The crowd at Davies Hall might still be cheering, and perhaps opening up cracks in walls and ceiling.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

On Halloween (Oct. 31) the Los Angeles Philharmonic knocked the socks off almost every one at Davies Hall with Tchaikovsky’s familiar Symphony No. 4, playing it like a true virtuoso orchestra and sounding like a European ensemble. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel’s melding with this group is total. And, in today’s era of strict tempos, he stretches tempi in heart-warming ritards and rubatos that were commonplace till about a century ago. He has pillowy-soft descents from brassy heights into wind-and-string valleys. The music sweeps along inexorably, carrying you along like a rushing river current. The slow movement featured a melting solo from oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, whom Dudamel later singled out for a solo bow.

My sole reservation about the interpretation is the sinewy brass-and-timpani assertiveness—welcome for the opening “Fate” theme,” yet overpowering later on. It reminded me of the memorable quote from composer-conductor Richard Strauss: “Never look encouragingly at the brass section.” (He also wrote tongue-in-cheek, Before the first downbeat, already the brass is too loud!) This stirring symphony is memorable for its finale, which sounds like yet another triumphal court scene added to a ballet like “Sleeping Beauty”—you can almost see the ballerina whirling onto the stage. And of course there’s the quoted beloved Russian tune every schoolkid there knows, “The Little Birch Tree.” Pure mother Russia!!

Andrew Norman’s demanding “Play” (2013) was as much a test of the orchestra as for the audience. The essence of the 40-minute opus was novel: The sound of the four percussionists acted like a switch, turning the rest of the orchestra on and off. This had the strings play at furious speed, with the brass punctuating at irregular times. You can imagine the percussionists’ delight at running the show from the often overlooked back rows, sounding out (with slapsticks, yet) to wake any patron dozing off. It’s a power trip, plain and simple, making implicit assertions about dictatorships and totalitarian leadership. Along the way the brass weighs in with potent gravity, and the trumpets form a sky-high sonic canopy over the proceedings. This switching is a somewhat limited concept for a work of such dimensions.

In his three sections (“levels”), composer Norman, 37, eventually takes a much more effective tack in a lengthy ultra-soft segment of aching beauty with a relaxed theme played out, each note performed by a different player. Dudamel conducted meticulously, achieving great articulation in the languid sections. (For those unhappy about writers’ frequent remarks on female performers’ appearances, some turnabout male-directed commentary: Dudamel has cut his mountainous explosion of hair that had marked his earlier appearances in the U.S.) For all his great gifts at producing near-silent orchestral magic, conductor Gustavo Dudamel also has a profound love for brass and timpani—loud, at times deafening-oppressive.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument. This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture. MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument.

This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture.

MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

 

A DYNAMO OF A CELLIST

A DYNAMO OF A CELLIST

Alisa Weilerstein Shares Stage with Heras-Casado

Stemming from a distinguished musical family, Alisa Weilerstein seems determined to be the dynamo of the younger performing generation. Last week back east she squeezed two recitals into one, playing all six unaccompanied Bach suites for cello in one intensive three-hour swoop, a feat that could leave both audience and performer in a sweat-drenched tingle.

With the San Francisco Symphony in a more subdued mode, she played the Schumann cello Concerto in A Minor on Oct. 22. This too is demanding though briefer, with the cello soloist playing almost nonstop. It’s one of Schumann’s unusually reflective and introspective pieces, bent less on fireworks than romantic lyricism. Its soulfulness is hard to resist.

When Weilerstein, 34, plays, it’s not just music, it’s music-theater. I’d pay for a close-up video of her many facial expressions, precisely matching each musical phrase she is playing, whether jocular, emotional, haughty or thought-provoking. How refreshing, in this formal situation, to see her lick her fingers before placing them securely on the strings! She mastered the many hurdles of the 23-minute opus, even those massive high-low jumps of a couple of octaves in the opening. The nimble fingers and precise intonation did the rest, assuring a standing ovation by the Davies Hall fans.

The fast-rising Spanish guest conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, etched a strong personality in leading another romantic   work, the Dvorak Symphony No. 7, which is an even   bolder, larger-scale statement by a composer showing some influences of Brahms’ orchestrations. But the thematic content was quite original. With the dashing Heras-Casado, it’s all about skillful dynamics in many shades, and enough warmth to heat up an ocean. This was not about a hearing, it was about an experience. The conductor is the master of the pillowy pianissimos   as much as precise, gorgeous (and splashy) climaxes. In the finale he led us into dark caves and then neatly brought us out into blazing sunshine. Given the superior play by the orchestra and its salient soloists, it was hard not to be swept along with the inexorable current.

The many-shaded dynamics also illuminated the 18 th -century Mozart Symphony No. 29, where the string basses happily showed not tubbiness but rather deft tones and nimble runs. The witty 18-year-old Mozart showed surprising touches in what you could call his first fully mature symphony, with an unorthodox minuet, and a finale that suggests, deceptively, that a copyist left out a couple of lines. Not the case!

These San Francisco Symphony concerts given at Davies Symphony Hall, S.F. For info: (415) 864-6000, or go  online. Broadcasts on KDFC-FM (90.3 and others) at 8 p.m. on the second Tuesday following.

©D. Rane Danubian 2016
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D. Rane Danubian has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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STRAVINSKY REVISITED IN BERKELEY

STRAVINSKY REVISITED IN BERKELEY

BERKELEY—Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Philharmonia Orchestra from London to Zellerbach Hall to do a two-program tribute to Stravinsky, recalling the 1968 opening ceremonies of the same site.

The 2,000-seat hall is a major site, filling a big yawning void at the University of California for nearly half a century.

The Londoners are supreme performers. As one colleague noted after “The Rite of Spring,” the muted horns played so softly, so subtly, it was as if they were offstage. Overall however, the tradition-breaking “Rite” came off exuberantly, ebulliently, with a wild streak on the bass drum and paired timpani prominently heard in the back row of players. This piece which revolutionized the course of music in 1913 and set off the biggest concert-hall riot at the premiere, is one of 4-5 different personae that the versatile Stravinsky adopted during his long composing career. He was such a commanding force in musical invention that I think he is forgiven for borrowing, unacknowledged, at least five of the “Rite” themes from an old Lithuanian folk-song book assembled and issued by Antanas Juska, a Lithuanian priest and folklorist. Stravinsky was ever the precise rhythmic master coming out of the ballet, rather than a source of abundant memorable themes.

Given the visceral nature of “The Rite,” its furious fusillades, the primitive society depicted in the ballet, and the human sacrifice at the end, is it any wonder that the elegant Parisians were infuriated by the opus?

Salonen, the handsome dashing Finn who had given up the plum job of directing the L.A. Philharmonic to devote more of his life to composing, is a top-line conductor, leading all the complex metric changes of Stravinsky unerringly and instantaneously, even if you can never really judge whether the beat comes on the upswing or downswing of the baton. (Fear not, his musicians can.) He and his players roused the crowd Oct. 8 to wild enthusiasm, and they remained audibly energized even as they filed out of the hall into the night.

For those few of us lucky enough to be around at the 1968 hall’s opening, on Oct. 9 the Londoners recreated that very repertory, with the composer then sitting down front (His delicate health and age, in his late 80s, prevented his conducting that night.) The great diversity of the composer was emphasized with the “Symphony of Psalms”—No violins or violas! Deliberately misplaced syllable accents! Revived Latin rarities! Two pianos!—-and his “Oedipus Rex” opera-oratorio, also in Latin, with narration.

I’ve heard the latter work with four different ensembles, and this was the most dramatic and compelling performance of all. The exceptional spinto tenor Nicholas Phan played the title role with a ringing voice and a touching persona, embodying the tragic end of this king who blinds himself on discovering himself married to his mother. Another American artist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, played Oedipus’ spouse-mother Jocasta with secure hall-ringing sound and inner fire.

The concerts also contained the jaunty, aphoristic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, less than 10 minutes long, and his late ballet “Agon” (1953-57) marking his entry into the ultra-complex sonic world of 12-tone composition.

For more information, visit the Philharmonia Orchestra of London events page.

A FLOOD OF INSPIRED STRAVINSKY

A FLOOD OF INSPIRED STRAVINSKY

As London’s Philharmonia Plays Berkeley

BERKELEY—Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Philharmonia Orchestra from London to Zellerbach Hall to do a two-program tribute to Stravinsky, recalling the 1968 opening ceremonies of the same site.

The 2,525-seat hall is a major site, filling a big yawning void at the University of California for nearly half a century.

The Londoners are supreme performers. As one colleague noted after “The Rite of Spring,” the muted horns played so softly, so subtly, it was as if they were offstage. Overall however, the tradition-breaking “Rite” came off exuberantly, ebulliently, with a wild streak on the bass drum and paired timpani prominently heard in the back row of players. This piece which revolutionized the course of music in 1913 and set off the biggest concert-hall riot at the premiere, is one of 4-5 different personae that the versatile Stravinsky adopted during his long composing career. He was such a commanding force in musical invention that I think he is forgiven for borrowing, unacknowledged, at least five of the “Rite” themes from an old Lithuanian folk-song book assembled and issued by Antanas Juska, a Lithuanian priest and folklorist. Stravinsky was ever the precise rhythmic master coming out of the ballet, rather than a source of abundant memorable themes.

Given the visceral nature of “The Rite,” its furious fusillades, the primitive society depicted in the ballet, and the human sacrifice at the end, is it any wonder that the elegant Parisians were infuriated by the opus?

Salonen, the handsome dashing Finn who had given up the plum job of directing the L.A. Philharmonic to devote more of his life to composing, is a top-line conductor, leading all the complex metric changes of Stravinsky unerringly and instantaneously, even if you can never really judge whether the beat comes on the upswing or downswing of the baton. (Fear not, his musicians can.) He and his players roused the crowd Oct. 8 to wild enthusiasm, and they remained audibly energized even as they filed out of the hall into the night.

For those few of us lucky enough to be around at the 1968 hall’s opening, on Oct. 9 the Londoners recreated that very repertory, with the composer then sitting down front (His delicate health and age, in his late 80s, prevented his conducting that night.) The great diversity of the composer was emphasized with the “Symphony of Psalms”—No violins or violas! Deliberately misplaced syllable accents! Revived Latin rarities! Two pianos!—-and his “Oedipus Rex” opera-oratorio, also in Latin, with narration.

I’ve heard the latter work with four different ensembles, and this was the most dramatic and compelling performance of all. The exceptional spinto tenor Nicholas Phan played the title role with a ringing voice and a touching persona, embodying the tragic end of this king who blinds himself on discovering himself married to his mother. Another American artist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, played Oedipus’ spouse-mother Jocasta with secure hall-ringing sound and inner fire. Stepping in smartly, with authoritarian voice, was narrator Carl Lumbly, filling in for a late cancelation.

The concerts also contained the jaunty, aphoristic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, less than 10 minutes long, and his late ballet “Agon” (1953-57) marking his entry into the ultra-complex sonic world of 12-tone composition.

The neoclassical “Psalms” had three massed choruses numbering close to 140 voices, with the women predominant. Among the singers was a visiting group from Sweden, the chorus from the university town of Lund.

Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Esa-Pekka Salonen principal conductor, Oct. 7-9, three programs of mostly Stravinsky. With choruses. Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. For info on the latter: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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