Dispelling the Starch

With the fluff and frills of the Gala opener out of the way, the San Francisco Symphony got down to business this week with a new work, and an East Coast conductor assisting the recuperating Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium.

Clearly, both the SFS and the SFOpera had made an unaccustomed push toward new audiences via some Broadway programming—the opera actually opening the season in unprecedented fashion with the show “Sweeney Todd” instead of an opera. Whether that will fill empty seats at elevated prices remains to be seen.

The SFS is also working to dispel the starchy view of symphony concerts. The players are still in white-tie formals, but not the conductors. And the giant posters outside show informal musicians in shirt-sleeves, as if to say, come as you are.

No upsurge in attendance was visible at the Sept. 30 SFS concert, capped by a rousing Tchaikovsky Sixth to send folks home euphorically. It began with Ted Hearne’s sassy “Dispatches,” a 17-minute piece of musical mosaics rather randomly assembled, based on a theme by Stevie Wonder.

Hearne, 33, on the USC faculty, is a postmodern iconoclast estranged from the symphonic world; I wonder why he even writes for orchestra. As he puts it, “Sometimes I feel I’m a stranger in a strange land when I visit an orchestra.” He manages to dissect the orchestral sound and reassemble fragments, starting right off assertively with heavy drum beats and brass blasts. A blurring electro-sound appears with feedback, with help of electric guitar and bass, and a sort of pointillism. There is a cadenza by the six percussionists, providing a chugga-chugga reminiscent of the industrial-age compositions of more than a century ago. Afterward, you yearned to pick up all the musical shards and put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

At the end, conductor Christian Reif and the composer—both youthful and bearded, neither in starchy formals—took quick bows to the cautious applause and vanished in the wings.

Reif had led the world premiere of the opus early this year back east and stepped in again, as MTT is still favoring his right arm which had pained him considerably early on.

MTT’s part of the program was exemplary. Soprano Susanna Phillips was back in town for Barber’s languid, romantic “Knoxville Summer of 1915” (1947) to poetry of James Agee. It spun a unique ambiance of family unity and of repose, where you can almost see the fireflies hovering in the backyard night. Given Ms. Phillips’ ecstatic delivery, the mood was exquisite. Contributions of harp and flute were salient, along with solo work by the orchestra’s newest principal, Eugene Izotov, oboe, taking the seat of the tragic ill-fated virtuoso William Bennett.
There followed Tchaikovsky’s final opus, the Symphony No. 6, premiered just days before the composer’s death. While supremely romantic, the piece is tragic, not for every taste. But it is a masterpiece, and I especially love the astute 5/4 meter of the second movement’s quasi-scherzo.

Because of the grandiose march and finale just before the closing Adagio section, audiences inevitably erupt in wild applause in mid-symphony. Not surprising, because the outer movements are in mournful modes, while the third movement is upbeat, major, heroic—typical for symphonic conclusions. Only, the resourceful Tchaikovsky is not nearly as typical and predictable as people think.

These San Francisco Symphony concerts continue through Octr. 3. 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.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
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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