Monday, April 16, 2007

Stravinsky and Takemitsu at the Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony has some of the most innovative and interesting programming of any symphonic organization in the country, and last week's program was a good example.

There were three fairly obscure pieces by Stravinsky, and for the crowd-pleasing concerto with a star soloist, they featured the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman playing the 1991 "Fantasma/Cantos" by the recently deceased Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, which is not exactly the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in terms of popularity.

The first half of the concert started with Stravinsky's 1920 "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" which he wrote as a eulogy for Debussy followed by the all-strings 1928 ballet score for "Apollo," which was Stravinsky's first real collaboration with George Balanchine.

They are both ascetic pieces of music but quite gorgeous in their own way, and Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra played them beautifully.

My only criticism is that Tilson Thomas has become such a popularizer and pedagogue recently, with his television and radio series, that he can't seem to shut up, so we had to listen to mini-lectures by him before each piece was played, complete with musical illustrations.

The music certainly didn't need any special pleading and though I'm sure many people enjoyed the music appreciation mini-class, there were quite a number of us who just wanted to yell "Be quiet and play the music!" Particularly since the program notes are so well-written at the San Francisco Symphony, there really isn't any reason for these endless explanations.

The second half of the concert started with the Takemitsu, which was written for Richard Stoltzman (above) 16 years ago. Though I've enjoyed Takemitsu's film scores over the years, his "art music" has always left me cold, so the lush beauty of "Fantasma/Cosmos" came as a real surprise. Stoltzman obviously loved the piece, and gave a great performance.

Surprisingly the Takemitsu fit in seamlessly with the Stravinsky, and was a perfect lead-in to the large forces number of the concert, Stravinsky's short, exquisite 1930 "Symphony of Psalms" with its reduced orchestra and huge chorus.

The two Colossus Art Figures still alive casting shadows as I was growing up were Stravinsky and Picasso, and the world is still trying to digest their art. I keep running across new (to me) Stravinsky pieces like "Song of the Nightingale" and now "Symphony of Psalms" that immediately jump to the top of my list of favorite Stravinsky scores. I wonder what's still in store.


Anonymous said...

Funny, our family went to church this Easter season, a rare event for a bunch of witches, atheists and Buddhists, to hear my brother-in-law sing in "Symphony of Psalms". I liked it right off for it fresh, unsentimental spirit even though I don't know much about 'music'.

Trevor Murphy said...

That sounds like a very interesting concert Mike, and I wish I'd had the sense to stock up on cough drops and go. Someone should also gently mention to Tilson-Thomas that the crowd that shows up for Takemitsu probably doesn't need the grownup version of the 'This instrument is called the bassoon!" lecture.