Saturday, September 30, 2006

Berlioz, Foss and Brahms

After a Society Opening Night at the beginning of the month and a short tour to the Lucerne, Switzerland festival where they played Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony finally opened their season this week with a bizarre, unsatisfying program.

Though it's nice that Franklin Templeton was "sponsoring" the concerts, I'm wondering why the price of the inexpensive Center Terrace seats have been jacked up to $25 this year. Management should actually have made them cheaper, since the most fanatically devoted consumers of classical music tend to be the very old and fairly young, many of them with very limited budgets.

Michael Tilson Thomas has been a wonderful and exciting music director for the San Francisco Symphony, but like all conductors, there's certain music he's great with and other music where I'd much rather listen to somebody else. Unfortunately, two of the composers who belong in the latter category are Berlioz and Brahms, who were featured in the concert Friday evening. After hearing MTT conduct excerpts from Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" one time, my friend Jerry Morgan said, "He makes it sound smoothed-out and plush and creamy, which is all wrong. The fun thing about Berlioz is how weird his music really is, and you want to hear that." Friday evening's rendition of the "Benvenuto Cellini" overture only proved Jerry's point.

The second piece on the program was the 1960 "Time Cycle" by Lukas Foss, which started out interestingly but became duller as the four movements went on until the audience was nearly comatose.

MTT gave a long and impassioned lecture/defense of the music and its composer but it was for naught. (Note to Davies Hall sound engineers: you can barely make out what MTT is saying from Center Terrace because there is so much reverb.)

The "Time Cycle" consists of four songs for soprano and fairly spare orchestration, and the soloist was Dawn Upshaw who is a controversial figure in the opera world, as some people worship her and others can't stand her voice. I'm in the total worship category and could listen to her sing the phone book, which might have been more interesting than "Time Cycle."

In the early 1970s I attended a 12-hour Bach Marathon held at the Hollywood Bowl, where general admission was $1 for the entire event (these were hippie days when there was still a trace of egalitarianism in the air). The conductor was none other than Lukas Foss and he was one of the most charming hosts and conductors I've ever encountered live. He also sat down at one point to a grand piano, apologizing for it not being a harpsichord, and gave a wild, crackerjack performance of the Brandenberg Concerto No. 5 that I can still hear in my brain.

So please, MTT, play something else by Mr. Foss because you're not doing him any favors with "Time Cycle."

Many people repaired to the bar to get ready for the Brahms Fourth Symphony, which Joshua Kosman called "a little overstuffed" (click here for the full review) and which I would characterize as just plain vulgar. The performance wasn't boring and certainly had a lot of commitment but it sounded like Mahler on steroids, not Brahms.

I bought a stereo with the proceeds from my first job at age 13 bagging groceries at a proto-WalMart, and with a streak of perversity one of my first purchases was a monaural boxed set of the Brahms Four Symphonies conducted by Bruno Walter in Carnegie Hall. The reason I bought it was that the set was cheap and being remaindered (stereo was pushing out monaural) and also it had a great quote on the front of the box from "Esquire" magazine to the effect that "these performances are so perfect there is no reason to ever record these symphonies again," and as it turned out he was right. Even Bruno Walter's own later set in stereo of the same music wasn't quite as good. So check out these recordings, MTT, for a clue on what to do with this music, and according to the knowledgeable commenters at Amazon (click here), you need to get the FRENCH Sony recording and not the bad Italian Sony transfer or the CDs will sound like crap.


Trevor Murphy said...

Great review, Mike. I am a little puzzled by music critics in 'real' journalism today, because it seems like they're afraid of writing a review (like yours) that points out when something wasn't good. Joshua Kosman dispenses with 'Time Cycle' in just three sentences -- despite it being a new work and therefore the most interesting thing to read about -- and dances around the Berlioz and Brahms with tame phrases. That's a real shame about the price of the Center Terrace seats.

richard friedman said...

Time Cycle isn't a new work. It's 46 years old (1960). When I first heard it, when it WAS new, it was amazing, and something I listened to often. Styles have changed. And, it could be that no one knows how to conduct it any more. (The performances I heard were with Foss and the NYPhil, I believe.. )

I will admit, I haven't heard it in many years, and don't even know if I have a CD of it (I'm sure the vinyl is in one of those boxes in the garage.)

Foss is (was) a truly gifted composer and performer. Perhaps underrated, but not all of his music satisfys. Or stands the test of time.

It is surprise, tho, that MTT had Time Cycle on the program. Even more curious is the combination with Berlioz and Brahms. It would have been more interesting to present some of the pieces that Foss's Time Cycle engendered, like Berio's Sinfonia (1968), or Babbitt's Philomel.

But I do remember sections from Time Cycle to this day. And I would have even gone to the Symphony to hear it, had it not been sandwiched between war horses. Seems a lot to pay, when a CD would do. But, I think all the recordings of Time Cycle are now out of print.

Anyway, it's too bad TC didn't get a good performance. I still like the piece (I think).

sfmike said...

Dear Trevor and Richard: Thanks for the comments. I actually heard "Time Cycle" back in 2000 when it was on one of the "American Mavericks" programs and though it didn't make much of an impression, it was interesting in the context of all the other "modern" American music that was being played. It wasn't until I heard it this second time that I realized it was going nowhere fast and the pall of boredom started hovering over the entire auditorium's head. As for the conducting and singing, there was really nothing to be faulted.

In the program it noted that originally the four song movements were punctuated by "improvised" pieces of music played by a small ensemble, which would have made the experience a lot more interesting.

Ginger Bee said...

I find the most concerning thing is that the lowest priced ticket is $25. I worked at another major arts organization so I know that one sponsorship doesn't necessary offset all the costs. That aside not having a certain % of tickets accessible for Jane & Joe Q. goes a long way to making the symph. unaccesible and elitist.