Wednesday, March 05, 2008

San Francisco Symphony's 2008-09 Season

The San Francisco Symphony invited the press to Davies Hall on Monday morning to announce their 2008-09 season, offering the scribes coffee and pastries...

...before ushering us inside the hall to sit onstage and listen to music director Michael Tilson Thomas and Executive Director Brent Assink (below) talk about next year's programs.

Though I've written plenty of rude things about Tilson Thomas' conducting on this blog (along with plenty of praise), I think the San Francisco Symphony has been tremendously blessed by his leadership over the last 14 years.

The last time I was in New York City some years ago was when the New York Philharmonic was announcing their upcoming season, and it seemed unbelievable how boring and conservative the vast majority of their programs were, and continue to be, while in San Francisco we get to hear a mixture of everything from tired old warhorses to world premiere commissions and everything in between.

This year, for instance, besides the usual Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky, there's music by Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Szymanowski, rare Leonard Bernstein, Carl Nielsen, Shostakovich, Ravel, Gabrieli, Prokofiev, Walton ("Belshazaar's Feast"), Thomas Ades, Jennifer Higdon, Oliver Knussen, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, and world premiere commissions from Mason Bates (the young dude above) and the legendary Russian (Tatar) composer Sofia Gubaidulina who will be in San Francisco for a two-week festival featuring her music.

The presentation, which was mostly an interview by Assink of Tilson Thomas, was mellow and good-natured with quite a few self-deprecating stories. One of my favorites was the announcement that the end-of-season festival would be a pairing of music by Schubert and Berg, two Viennese composers at opposite ends of the 19th century, and actually a fascinating pairing. When asked about the semi-staged production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Iolanthe" which actually ends the season, Tilson Thomas admitted he was doing it simply because he adored the music. "I thought of a Berg and Gilbert&Sullivan festival, but somehow I couldn't figure out how to make it work."

The best story, however, came from the new Swedish chorus director, Ragnar Bohlin (above), about Ligeti's "Requiem" which is on a fascinating sounding program that includes Gabrieli, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major with the legendary Martha Argerich playing, and Liszt's "Tasso; Lament and Triumph." Bohlin mentioned that an excerpt from the "Requiem" is used when the apes encounter the monolith in Kubrick's "2001" and that the music was written for a Swedish orchestra in the early 1960s, with two choruses combining forces for the piece. "The music is very, very difficult and the rehearsals were made even harder because there was construction going on in the concert hall. Finally, after about two weeks of work, a construction foreman poked his head through an open window into the rehearsal hall, and announced, 'We can't work under these conditions. It's impossible.' True story," Bohlin promised.

When it came to question time from the press, the first was from former Examiner and Chronicle classical music critic Alan Ulrich (above), which was a challenging demand to Tilson Thomas to know why, "with all of the many composers who could be honored this way, why did you choose Sofia Gubaidulina?" which left the conductor sort of nonplused.

I like Patrick Vaz's proposed reply to the prickly Mr. Ulrich: "Because we can; because she could; why the hell not?" (Click here to read his well-reported take on the same press conference.)

The new music director of the San Francisco Opera, Nicola Luisotti, has been asked to make his debut at the Symphony next March, and David Gockley (above, with Symphony President John Goldman) should try his best to get Tilson Thomas to cross the street and conduct an opera for him. How about Bernstein's "A Quiet Place," for instance? Tilson Thomas along with Dawn Upshaw and the Symphony are playing excerpts from the one "serious" opera Bernstein wrote before taking the program to Carnegie Hall's Bernstein celebration this fall. It would be interesting to hear.


sfwillie said...

One of my favorite WSG couplets is from Iolanthe’s When You’re Lying Awake:

For you dream you are crossing the Channel, and tossing about in a steamer from Harwich—
Which is something between a large bathing machine and a very small second-class carriage—

Lisa Hirsch said...

Great report!

MTT's reasoning for Iolanthe is the best possible. I am astonished that no one asked about the birthday boys - and as you see, I still haven't blogged this myself.

Civic Center said...

Just in case attentive readers noticed changes from the original posting, I got a few names wrong (it was Assink doing the interviewing, not Goldman) and I took the opportunity to correct a few other errors.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

SFWillie: And there's this for the subscription department:
"Pleasures come in endless series;
We shall arrange
Happy exchange. . ."

Lisa, Well, I explained why I didn't ask about the b'day boys: basically, if MTT had much affinity for them we'd have been hearing a lot more of them all along, and if he's giving us Gubaidulina in depth and major Ligeti and suchlike, then I'll give him a pass on the token honorifics. (I'm still hoping Cal Performances and SF Performances will come through for them, of course.) Not ideal, but what is? And I'm stoked about Iolanthe. Lots of G&S is influenced by Verdi, but this is the Wagner/Mendelssohn side. Sweet!

Mike: Outstanding (as usual!). I've added a link to your report in my write-up. You included lots of stuff I wish I'd mentioned. I commend your restraint in not talking about that woman with the noisy camera (and cell phone).

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was emailing the symphony about various things and I did ask - I got a well-thought-out answer along the lines of "there are several anniversaries we're observing; we can't do them all; we have played and will continue to play both M & C."

Yeah, the SFS season has plenty of tasty music, and I would expect that Cal Performances and various new music groups will come through w/the birthday boys.

Kit Stolz said...

The Schubert/Berg pairing sounds fascinating; I hope you'll report on it when the time comes.

Another modern composer who never seems to get his due from the big West Coast symphonies -- Lou Harrison. Don't understand it. Any thoughts on that, Mike?

Civic Center said...

Dear Kit: Actually, the San Francisco Symphony has performed quite a bit of Lou Harrison. He and Tilson Thomas were friends. And I agree with you. I love his music.