SF Symphony Music for a Modern Age: Ives, Thomas, Harrison, Antheil

Today we look back at the San Francisco Symphony’s “Music for a Modern Age” concert that took place in late June. This wasn’t simply a concert or even a concert focused on American music of the last 100 years. It was a theatrical event, with video projection, staging, and more.

The evening began with two pieces by Charles Ives. First, there was the incantation-like From the Steeples and the Mountains with its interconnecting tones on chimes, followed The Unanswered Question. This was a more complex piece both musically and logistically, as it featured a small wind-and-string ensemble on stage and an offstage antiphonal string ensemble (conducted by Christian Rief). The two groups alternated in a call-and-response form. It isn’t necessarily one ensemble asking the questions and another answering, as the wind instruments are involved in both, but it added another dimension to nature of the piece, which was deliberately unsettling but also hauntingly beautiful. Both Ives pieces featured video by Adam Larsen and lighting design by Luke Kritzeck.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Spencer Lowell. Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony.

The segment featured a piece by conductor and music director Michael Wilson Thomas, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. It was an interesting format, with the orchestra alongside a standard jazz/rock bar band with horns, bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums, complex video and lighting (again by Larsen and Kritzeck, respectively) and singers in elegant dress. The music freely mixed modernist orchestral sounds with jazz and rock idioms as the moved through the text by Carl Sandburg. The subject matter was quite dark – with images of death and decay and ruins of a once-great city that overflowed with pride – ”We are the greatest city. Nothing like us ever was” – that is now left to rats and other wildlife. But it was also a very playful and fun piece, especially in the sections with singing and dancing by the three lead vocalists (Measha Brueggergosman, Mikaela Bennett and Kara Dugan) around the stage in a cabaret style to the rhythms of the jazz band. MTT stated that his influences for the vocal sections included Sarah Vaughan and James Brown, as well as classical influences Leontyne Price and Igor Stravinsky. It is safe to say that we really liked this piece and the performance. Even at a length 32 minutes, it kept our attention and enjoyment throughout.

Lou Harrison was a major force in American music, but is also considered one of California’s own, blending influences from the landscape and culture of the state and bridging them with his interests Asian music. This simultaneously local and world character was well represented in the selections from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The American Gamelan is a collection of instruments inspired by the materials, timbres and tunings of traditional Indonesian gamelan but new and different. Harrison often combined his Asian and invented instruments with more conventional western orchestral instruments, in this solo violin played by Nadya Tichman. The piece unfolded as a series of movements. The first, “Threnody” was a lamentation as the title would suggest, showcasing the violin, but all four movements had a distinctly Asian or abstract sound from the preponderance of sounds from the American gamelan.

The final piece of the evening was George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony. It is musically and sonically quite different from Antheil’s most famous piece Ballet méchanique in that it is less noisy, more tonal, and focuses on traditional orchestral and popular instruments. Think of it as a predecessor of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was in fact influenced by Jazz Symphony. Once again, however, this was not simply an orchestral performance. The lighting and video (this time by Clyde Scott created an enveloping environment reminiscent of a jazz-age cabaret or club. This was further enhanced by the dancers (directed by Patricia Birch) who wore 1920s-style costumes. The overall result of music, visuals, costuming and choreography was energetic, but also rather sexy – as our romanticized view of that era tends to be. There were a lot of fun and even comedic moments a the dancers attempted to distract and even “lead on” members of the orchestra (some of whom turned out to actually be dancers themselves who were soon replaced by the actual musicians).

Overall this was a very strong concert, and perhaps one of my favorites I have seen with the SF Symphony – and we have been going to quite a few in the past year or so. As the symphony often has intriguing programming outside the traditional catalog of 19th century classical works, we certainly expect to be back again soon. I do leave the experience pondering what it means to be “modern” or be in a “modern age”, however. Perhaps the span of time marked by these compositions is in some ways more “modern” than the period that is unfolding now, but that is a discussion for another time.

SF Sympony Performs John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary

In February, the San Francisco Symphony performed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. The event was part of the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday.

John Adams
[Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony]

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a monumental opus, over two hours in length and featuring a full orchestra, chorus, and staging with the principal singers. The orchestra also included some additional interesting instruments, including this large collection of gongs.

As implied by the name, the libretto is drawn heavily from the New Testament, specifically the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany whose brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. But it also incorporates many other modernist elements. The story moves back and forth between the Biblical setting and a more contemporary setting, weaving in scenes of women protesting as part of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ strikes, and Mary witnessing a fellow inmate in jail suffering through a painful drug withdrawal. The setting of Mary and Martha’s home is depicted as a women’s shelter that would not be out of place in any large American city. And the milieu surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion is a modern urban uprising, complete with police sirens.

Another unusual element in this telling of the story is that Jesus is never specifically shown on stage as a character, although he is sometimes represented by a trio of tenors who also act as something akin to a Greek chorus. The full symphony chorus meanwhile acts as a tertiary level of narration, with Biblical quotes, Latin phrases, and more contemporary sources in English and Spanish. All of this makes for a complex setting around the main characters on stage: Mary (Kelly O’Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus (Jay Hunter Morris). Mary is the central character – she is listed as “Mary Magdalene” in the program although biblically she is not the same character as Mary of Bethany – introducing the piece and then reappearing frequently with long arias and monologues. Martha is the solid rock providing structure but also her own story running the shelter and caring for her sister and brother. Both women are portrayed as major “fan girls” of Jesus, excited when he comes to town, but each in their own way. Lazarus comes across as a bit of a skeptic and in one scene questions and challenges the somewhat amorphous Jesus.

The simplicity and familiarity of the central story combined with the complexity of the visual and sonic setting make for a compelling performance – even those who cynically eye-roll at “yet another musical setting of Biblical texts” should be impressed by this work. It is also a departure from earlier compositions by John Adams – he is best known for his minimalist works, similar to that of Steve Reich but with a softer tone and west-coast source materials. But there is nothing soft about this piece. It is dark, angry, anguished at times, especially during Mary’s multiple scenes of personal anguish and confusion as well as the tense scenes leading up to the crucifixion. The modern elements blend effortlessly with the biblical elements and help to bring home to brutality and harshness in both contexts.

The two-hour-plus length did seem a bit daunting at first (there was an intermission between acts), but it actually went quite quickly as were were wrapped up in the many aspects of the performance. Overall, it was a great experience and I am glad we were on hand for it. As this is Adams’ 70th birthday year, we are looking forward to hearing more performances of his music, new and old.

San Francisco Symphony performs 2001: A Space Odyssey

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[Image courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony]

Today we look back at the live soundtrack performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the San Francisco Symphony. The performance featured the full orchestra on the direction of Brad Lubman along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin.

Kublick’s film is of course a masterpiece, as is the film’s score, which comes from a variety of sources, including Richard Strauss and György Ligeti (one of our musical heroes). Hearing it live in a concert hall with the movie on a big screen is a different experience. The orchestra seats did allow us to both see the film clearly and get spatial effects particularly from the chorus. Indeed, some of most powerful sounds was the choral sections featuring Ligeti’s eerie clouds of pitches. What was also particularly apparent in the live setting was just how sparse the score is. Much of the film has no music at all.

The scenes on the space station – overall an under-appreciated part of the film – popped out more strongly as a result of live score, contrasting the (Johan) Strauss music leading up the docking with sparse texture of dialog and machine sounds of station’s interior. Perhaps, however, part of the fun of these scenes is how dated they look, more like an idealized airport interior from the 1960s. By contrast, the scenes aboard the Discovery seem more contemporary. And the audience of 2016 had quite a bit of fun at HAL’s expense, as we live in an age where computers with both voices and voice recognition are becoming part of our daily lives (”Hey Siri, what do you think about HAL 9000?”).

2001: A Space Odyssey was presented as part of the Symphonies ongoing feature film series. Sadly, we were not able to attend the talk beforehand with professor of music Kate McQuiston, or the appearance by Keir Dullea on an earlier date.

SF Symphony Celebrates the Music of Steve Reich

This past September, the San Francisco Symphony celebrated the 80th birthday of composer Steve Reich with a week of performances, culminating in an all-Reich program on Sunday, September 11.

Steve Reich
[Steve Reich. Photo by Jeffrey Herman. Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.]

The diverse program features a variety of works from his oeuvre. It began with Six Marimbas, a piece originally scored and titled in 1973 Six Pianos. It has the classic Reich sound of repeated but slowly evolving patterns that form a continuously moving harmony throughout the piece. I thought it was particularly well suited to the marimbas, which provide a percussive texture for the lines and a lightness for the harmony. I have not heard the original for pianos, but I can imagine it was a bit heavier.

Six Marimbas was followed by Electronic Counterpoint, featuring Derek Johnson on guitar. In addition to Johnson’s live performance, the piece includes multiple pre-recorded lines to form the counterpoint texture. It is also broken up into movements and involves the development of melodic and harmonic themes that give it a more traditional quality despite the unusual orchestration.

After the intermission, Steve Reich joined Michael Tilson Thomas (aka “MTT”) for an impromptu performance of Clapping Music. This is a fun piece, and it was great to see him perform it. In some ways, this piece formed the center of the “celebration” aspect of the concert, with a long ovation following the performance.

The formal program resumed with Different Trains, performed by the Kronos Quartet with pre-recorded voices. This is a much heavier piece. It combines the sounds of trains with the live quartet and vocal recordings. It starts somewhat nostalgic with reminiscing of train trips across the United States, including New York and Los Angeles, but takes a darker turn as the voices and sounds turn to memories of the trains carrying Jews to the concentration camps during the Holocaust. It then returns to the U.S. in the final movement but with the awareness that the memories of train rides have starkly different meanings depending on time and place.

Interestingly, the original program featured WTC 9/11, a powerful piece that would have had additional resonance and symbolism coming on the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was replaced by Different Trains – both pieces were originally written for and performed by the Kronos Quartet. There wasn’t any official mention of why the switch occurred. WTC 9/11 is a dark and difficult piece, even more so than Different Trains, and perhaps it was felt the anniversary was a distraction from the celebration of Reich’s full life and work.

The final piece of the evening was Reich’s Double Sextet, a piece that features two identical sextets – flute, clarinet, violin, piano, vibraphone, and cello. For this entirely live version, members of the SF Symphony were joined by Eighth Blackbird. The two groups formed the dueling sextets that played similar but different parts that proceeded a variety of interlocking rhythms and harmonies. The mixed instrumentation also gave it a more complex timbre than Six Marimbas (which sounded like a single instrument). It was also a more recent piece, composed in 2008, using the contrapuntal techniques he had developed in the earlier works.

I am glad that we were able to attend and be part of this event. I had studied Steve Reich as a composer and music student, and heard some of these pieces before, but not in a single unified symphonic setting. It was a fitting tribute.