Tuesday, August 25, 2009
San Francisco Symphony 2009-10 Preview
Literal signs of high musical culture have been sprouting all month around the Civic Center, including the San Francisco Symphony whose opening night gala is in a couple of weeks on Wednesday, September 9th. There have been a number of complaints recently at the San Francisco Classical Voice site about how Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony don't play enough living, local composers (the site is bankrolled by would-be composer Gordon Getty, and you can make your own conclusions). They also point out how unadventurous MTT's programming has become since he blazed into the Music Director role with his American Mavericks series over a decade ago.
I don't particularly buy the argument, particularly since the list of composers they advocate for are nowhere near the top of my list of neglected great composers. For instance, I really don't need to hear another note of music by either the late Andrew Imbrie or the living Jake Heggie.
It is true that this year's season isn't as adventurous as the last two, but overall, there are individual concerts that will appeal to everyone, from the beginner hearing their first Brandenberg Concertos live to jaded old audiophiles like myself who are excited hearing something brand new and who tend to get impatient with Brandenberg Concertos unless they are insanely, brilliantly done.
I decided to see how this year's San Francisco Symphony season stacked up in "adventurousness" with a few other orchestras in the country, and looked at the nine-month seasons for Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia during the same period. The results were as follows: Philadelphia under Charles Dutoit is Warhorse Central this year with some of the dullest programming imaginable. New York under the young new music director Alan Gilbert is much more interesting than its previous recent seasons under Lorin Maazel, but the programming is essentially very dull and conservative with a few exceptions.
Boston under James Levine is probably the closest to San Francisco in terms of its eclectic mix of the new and the tried-and-true. For every Elliot Carter premiere, for instance, there's an all-nine-Beethoven-symphony survey by Levine. So I'd call it a draw between Boston and San Francisco, except as my friend Patrick Vaz would immediately point out, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gets to play in the 1900 Boston Symphony Hall which is considered "acoustically, among the top three concert halls in the world and is considered the finest in the United States" while the San Francisco Symphony plays in Davies Hall. We're giving Boston the nudge here.
The real surprise was that the Los Angeles Philharmonic under new music director Gustavo Dudamel has the most consistently lively and interesting programming over the next year of all the five orchestras. Besides genuinely varied repertory, they are having a two-week festival in late November and early December called "West Coast, Left Coast" that is featuring most of the interesting composers in the Bay Area such as John Adams, Paul Dresher, Mason Bates, and Ingram Marshall along with Cowell, Harrison, Partch, Zappa, Cage and Salonen. The second festival is at the end of April next year, and is called "America and Americans" with major works by Bernstein, Golijov, Estevez and more.
However, Los Angeles is just one bad day away from the apocalypse, as my friend Markus Crouse once said, so let's concentrate on San Francisco. Here's a list of the concerts by the San Francisco Symphony that are attracting me on paper:
The first three weeks of the season is a Mahler festival with the First Symphony leading off, which will be followed the next week by a potpourri of works that are going to be changing each night depending on what they want to put into the latest "Keeping Score" television show, and it wraps up with the Fifth Symphony preceded by the Italian mystic Scelsi's "Hymnos."
The next highlight is Bach's six-part "Christmas Oratorio" in December in place of the usual "Messiah." It's incredibly beautiful music and it's actually about the Birth of Jesus rather than the Death of Jesus.
In January, there is a two-week residency by British composer George Benjamin who will be premiering a fistful of his works and conducting one of the concerts. The week following has MTT conducting with Yo-Yo Ma for Shostakovich's cello concerto no. 2, along with obscure pieces by Sibelius, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. At the end of January, MTT takes to the piano for a Mozart concerto which is bracketed by Stravinsky's "Octet" and complete "Pulcinella."
In February, MTT leads the orchestra in another Schubert Mass (#2) along with the Symphony premiere of Henry Brant's orchestration of Ives' "Concord Sonata," which is supposed to be an amazing piece of music. In March, he conducts Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony which I have somehow managed to never hear live even though it may be my favorite. Another big choral concert will be in May with Stravinsky's rarely heard "Threni" and the full version of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe." June ends with MTT conducting Poulenc, Villa-Lobos and Ravel sharing the program with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and the final concert of the year is Berlioz' strange, beautiful version of "Romeo et Juliette."
If you're feeling poor like me, there is the welcome news that the Center Terrace seats right behind the orchestra, which are great fun to sit in, have been reduced in price from $25 to $15 in honor of Tilson Thomas' fifteenth year with the orchestra. The rush ticket hot line for day-of-performance tickets is (415) 503-5577. They used to be $20 and may be the same price this year. If you'd like to check out subscription packages, click here for the symphony website.
Finally, a note to the Marketing people in charge of outdoor signage. Your color schemes and typography are lovely, but the photos of Michael Tilson Thomas, Alexander Barantschik and Nadya Tichman look like they've been airbrushed to Playboy Centerfold standards which gives me the giggles every time I walk underneath them.