Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dvorak and Schuman with One N

On Ash Wednesday evening, the San Francisco Symphony offered a hastily put-together program after the scheduled conductor, Carlos Kalmar, canceled with illness and was replaced at the last minute by Alasdair Neale, who used to be the Symphony's Associate Conductor for 12 years.

The original program promised an orchestrated Hungarian Rhapsody by Lizst, a "Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra" called "A Song of Orpheus" by the 20th century American composer William Schuman, and Dvorak's rarely heard Symphony #6. The substitutions were Dvorak's "Carnival Overture" for the Lizst, and Dvorak's widely played Seventh Symphony rather than the Sixth.

The "Carnival Overture" is bombastic Top 10 classical music that you have heard a million times whether you know it or not, and the performance was wonderfully rousing and fun, just as it was written to be.

Unfortunately, the 1961 "A Song of Orpheus" was some of the most boring-ass music I've heard at the symphony in some time, dry and conservative and rhythmically uninteresting. Rick from Napa (above) even fell asleep during the 30-minute piece and threatened to start snoring at any moment, which must have been disconcerting for the soloist, since we were in the first row.

William Schuman was a New York pop songwriter in the 1920s who famously went to a Toscanini concert in 1930, where they were serendipitously playing Wagner and Schumann (with two n's), and the one "n" Schuman decided on the spot to become a classical composer, studying with Roy Harris for a number of years.

He seemed to have played the politics of the New York classical music world with immense skill, winning the first Pulitzer Prize for music; becoming the Director of Publications for G. Schirmer, Inc.; followed by the presidency of the Julliard School of Music for 17 years; and capped by being the first president of Lincoln Center. He also wrote ten symphonies along the way, which I am sure were dutifully played by everyone. In Michael Steinberg's program notes, he writes: "this composition shows us another and particularly likable side of William Schuman." If this is the likable side, please spare me the other.

The only reason to play the piece is if one is featuring an insanely virtuosic cellist, but the soloist for these concerts is Michael Grebanier, the Principal Cellist of the San Francisco Symphony. He's a good musician but a truly mediocre soloist. The practice of having various instrumentalists within the orchestra play a soloist role on occasion has yielded some wonderful moments over the years, but I don't remember Grebanier having supplied any of them.

After intermission, we were treated to the "tragic" and "intensely patriotic" Symphony Number Seven of Dvorak.

Though I love most of Dvorak, especially his opera "Rusalka" and all of his chamber music, the symphonies have always struck me as sounding like second-rate Brahms. Still, after the Schuman "fantasy," second-rate Brahms sounded perfectly masterful.

Plus, the orchestra played with obvious enjoyment for their old friend Alasdair Neale, and in the case of the musician pictured above, with an authentic fervor that was a treat to watch.


janinsanfran said...

You are blogging up a storm. Awesome!

Ced said...

I find Grebanier usually solid! As far as nice moments go, I recall his interactions with Rostropovich last year during a Shostakovich symphony which left some nice memories with me. I think I have missed a concert series where he was soloist of a cello concerto recently, though.