The San Francisco Symphony's opening concerts of the season, after their Gala opening last Wednesday, were a very odd mixture of the music of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Steve Reich. The three composers all share the distinction of being Jewish New Yorkers working in popular classical musical styles, but otherwise they made for a strangely discordant fit. The concert started with a suite from Copland's first successful ballet score, the 1938 Billy the Kid, and though the sampled cowboy tunes were gorgeously orchestrated, I kept wishing we could watch a ballet instead of listening to the big, boisterous orchestra performing what sounded like an overplayed pops piece.
Copland's few attempts at writing vocal music have always struck me as the efforts of somebody who was given no special gift in that regard. Some composers have it and others do not, which is a mystery. Copland knew his own strengths and weaknesses, so he didn't write much vocal music but did work for over two decades (the 1950s-1970s) on a song cycle based on 12 Emily Dickinson poems, eventually orchestrating eight of them for a chamber ensemble. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas' favorite young soprano of the moment, Susanna Phillips, was the soloist and though she did her best and has a pretty sound, the four excerpted songs on the program did not make much of an impression. Especially if you have heard John Adams' exquisite depiction in his early choral symphony Harmonium of The Chariot, with its opening stanza of:
"Because I could not stop for Death,you would also think Copland's setting was very weak tea indeed.
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
Possibly to keep in tune with the Opening Gala atmosphere, Ms. Phillips sang two songs by Gershwin, Summertime from Porgy and Bess and I Got Rhythm, originally an Ethel Merman song from the musical Girl Crazy. Phillips hit some beautiful notes in Summertime, but I spent most of the rendition wishing it was Nina Simone or Cleo Laine or Leontyne Price who was singing. The bad amplification for I Got Rhythm did the opposite of what was intended, making the lyrics mostly unintelligible.
After intermission there was a performance by the young, Chicago-based ultra-hipster sextet, Eighth Blackbird, of Steve Reich's Double Sextet from 2007 which was written for them and promptly won the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year. It's a great, late Steve Reich composition and the "Double" in this case was not the original sextet playing to a recording of themselves in counterpoint but live, first-chair players from the SF Symphony. This is the kind of interesting programming and cross-performance magic that's been happening at the SoundBox concerts over the last two years, and it was heartening to see it finally occurring in Davies Hall as part of an opening week subscription concert. Too bad we had to listen to all that boring Copland to get to the excitement.
The twenty-minute Double Sextet consists of mirroring sextets made up of violin (Yvonne Lam for 8B and Alexander Barantschik for SFS), cello (Nicholas Photinos for 8B and Amos Yang for SFS), flute (Nathalie Joachim for 8B and Tim Day for SFS), clarinet (Michael J. Maccaferri for 8B and Corey Bell for SFS), piano (Lisa Kaplan for 8B and Robin Sutherland for SFS), and vibraphone (Matthew Duvall for 8B and Jacob Nissly). The flute and clarinet parts are occasionally written for very high registers and the sound becomes electronic and otherworldly over the constantly changing pulse of the pianos and vibraphones, while the two strings (which sounded electrified, but subtly amplified) added their own richness.
Then the entire huge San Francisco Symphony trooped back onto the stage for Reich's 1985 Three Movements. Reich was being feted for the week in honor of his 80th birthday on October 3rd. At a quick Q&A at the SF Conservatory of Music last Thursday, my friend Patrick Vaz reported that somebody asked Reich about Three Movements and he replied that "it isn't a very good piece," and he's right. Unlike Copland, Reich occasionally writes splendid vocal music but large orchestras have never really been his medium. Glad to heave heard the piece once, though.