Saturday, May 12, 2007

Music review: SFS/MTT 5/10/2007

One of our little luxuries in life is season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony. The last concert for this season in our series was last night. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with Thomas Hampson as the soloist.

The first piece was Aaron Copland's Short Symphony. I'm not overly familiar with this piece, although I know a fair amount of Copland's work. The performance shows that MTT has a deep understanding of American music, and is one of today's foremost interpreters of Copland's work. The intensity of this piece was startling, but it had a distinctively Copland sound. From the program notes, it took Copland two years to write this 15 minute piece. He definitely was aiming for no more and no less than he needed, and succeeded admirably.

The second 'piece' of the night was a set of five songs by Gustav Mahler from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The performance was recorded, and will be featured on a future CD in the SFS Mahler cycle that is in progress. Mahler's unique style shines through in these short pieces. "Urlicht" in particular has that sound of rural Austria and high symphonic style at the same time. I'm a huge Mahler fan, and greatly enjoyed this song cycle.

After the intermission, the final piece of the night was Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss. Strauss is one of the few composers who attempts Mahler's ideal of symphonic works where a piece creates an entire universe of its own. Echoes of this piece continue to appear in music throughout the 20th century. The beginning, of course, has a distinct cultural identity. It's impossible to hear it and not see a black monolith, some out of control apes, and a space station. Still, if you can get those images out of your head, you can easily see the intended imagary: sunrise. There's the first inkling of the Sun, and then first contact as the limb of the Sun emerges above the horizon. As the Sun continues to rise, the intensity of the repeated themes intensifies, until the whole of that giant nuclear fire in the sky is blazing in the morning sky, and the whole orchestra (including the organ) are pumping out maximum volume. (Note to self: make a point of finding an organ recital at Davies Symphony Hall. That instrument is amazing!) After sunrise, the music turns introspective. The string quartet that starts one of the main themes eventually expands to the entire string section, and the overall effect is sublime. Alexander Barantschik, the SFS concertmaster, was featured on all of the solo violin parts in the piece. His playing of the lyrical passages made his violin seem to sing, while other much folksier passages sound like a gypsy fiddle. (It doesn't hurt that he plays a great instrument - a 1742 del Gesu violin named "the David". Still, he has to play it to get those sounds!) The entire piece is, of course, a tone poem based on the Nietzsche text of the same name. After exploring all of the world available in the piece, Strauss wraps up the entire piece with a quiet and introspective coda.

Overall, this was an extraordinary night of music, and the SFS and MTT were in top form.

Coming next: the SFS Youth Orchestra celebrates their 25th anniversary on the 20th of May with a concert featuring some minor works. Yeah, that's it. They're playing Beethoven's Ninth!

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