Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finland Station at the San Francisco Symphony

The "West Coast Premiere" of a new orchestral work by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (above right) took place at a Thursday matinee, led by the young Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo (above left). The Symphony had co-comissioned "Seht die Sohnne" ("Behold The Sun") with the Berlin Philharmonic, which last year not only gave the 30-minute piece its world premiere, but took it on tour to the BBC Proms in London and Carnegie Hall in New York where it was very well received.

I'd never heard anything by Lindberg before (above, in the middle) but his name has been appearing everywhere as one of the "cool kids" composers (he's 50 years old), so I was genuinely curious, and am happy to report that "Seht die Sohnne" is an absolutely spectacular piece of music, sounding as if Sibelius had somehow managed to absorb Messiaen, Ligeti and John Adams into his palette.

Though the huge orchestral forces are almost relentlessly loud during the first half, the piece suddenly turns into a work for solo cello midway, which was played fearlessly and beautifully by Peter Wyrick (above), before building into another huge, false climax reminiscent of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, and then gearing down into a soft, troubled conclusion. What it all means I haven't a clue, but it passed the new music test with flying colors. In other words, I immediately wanted to hear it again.

The "Rhoda Goldman Matinee Series" of mostly old ladies tend to be good, sophisticated audiences, but my friend Charlie Lichtman and I were sitting behind an exception. The lady in red (above) decided she hated the Lindberg piece from the get-go and spent the entire time talking to her husband or shaking with laughter so violently that we thought she was having a stroke. She so thoroughly pissed off one of her neighbors two seats away that he leaned over in the middle of the music to tell her to be quiet, which didn't do much good.

After this volcanic opening, we were offered a set of seven early Debussy "art songs" orchestrated by the conductor and sung by his soprano wife, Anu Komsi.

Unfortunately, European art songs tend to bore the bejesus out of me, and this performance did nothing to alter my prejudices. Komsi has an absolutely beautiful voice except when she doesn't, shrieking a few notes into the large Davies Hall that were surely not intended.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Charlie's favorite Beethoven symphony, the Seventh, conducted by Oramo with really eccentric tempos that didn't work at all. Most of the first three movements were way too slow and emphatic while the final movement was taken at supersonic speed as if to make up for the bizarre lethargy that preceded it. The performance brought to mind Benjamin Britten's unkind remark about Beethoven's music as "just like sacks of's all so obvious."


jolene said...

I'm starting to think that I'm completely missing the point of modern music. It's not like I can even sit and remember a single motif or melody from it right now - I can describe it, describe my emotions about it (other than a general vague sense of bewilderment, which is a common reaction of mine in response to modern music.) I can also tell that I liked this better than the Turnage piece I listened to at the SFS previously, but that's about it. I felt like I wanted to hear it again because I felt like I missed something completely.

I couldn't help but to contrast Wyrick with Barantschik, the concertmaster that I heard play Prokofiev concerto at the last concert. Barantschik was technically perfect, but I would much rather hear Wyrick play. That's a great picture of him, he was absolutely brilliant.

sfmike said...

Dear Jolene: The Lindberg was very dense, complex music, both for the performers and listeners. There was no way to take it all in on a first hearing or even on a second or third. The way I've gotten to know a lot of music, both modern and old, is to concentrate on the section that's most identifiable/pleasurable at first hearing, and then let the rest of it unfold in my brain at its own pace on repeated hearings. I'm actually been doing that with all of J.S. Bach's cantatas over the last year, obsessively replaying each disc containing three different cantatas until I've mentally memorized a favorite section.

By the way, a lot of "modern" music is totally uninteresting to me, which is why it's great to hear a piece where even though I don't quite get it, I still ended up trusting the composer and enjoying where they had decided to take me. The best thing about "modern" music is it is of our time, and the arts are always in need of being refreshed by new consciousness. Plus, if you listen to enough of it, you start developing an ear for the conventions and you can confidently state, "Hate this, love that, haven't decided."

Henry Holland said...

Number of recordings of Boulez' La Marteu sans Maitre that I own: 9
Number of recordings of *anything* by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky etc. (i.e. the standard rep): 3 (one each of Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Beethoven's 9th)

Plus, if you listen to enough of it, you start developing an ear for the conventions and you can confidently state, "Hate this, love that, haven't decided."

That's it exactly. I grew up listening the 17th-19th century reps thanks to my dad, but when I got in to ELP in 1975, I discovered Ginastera (they'd adapted the 4th movement of his first piano concerto). I was totally lost the first 20 times I listened to the LP I bought, but I latched on to it: *that's* what I wanted music to sound like, not Mozart.

So here I am, 33 years later, and I can hear a piece of modernism once and "get it", simply because I pretty much only listen to Schoenberg, Berg, Birtwistle, Boulez and so on (with a detour in to the last-gasp romanticism of Schreker, Korngold, Zemlinsky et al). I get the premises, I understand the syntax, the cliches, simply HOW to listen to it. Hint: not expecting hummable tunes or toe-tapping rhythms.

I like some of Lindberg's stuff, he's pretty conservative and straighforward, as a lot of the Finnish school is, but this disc is terrifc, and so is this one. My favorite piece of his is the Concerto for Orchestra, but I don't think it's been commercially recorded yet.

It's a shame his stuff, along with Kaija Saariaho's, is likely to disappear from Los Angeles Philharmonic programs after Mr. Salonen leaves next year. Oh well.

Love that Britten quote, it's exactly how I feel about pre-20th century/modernist stuff.

sfmike said...

Dear Henry: The Britten quotation is in remarks he made to a teenage cellist, Humphrey Maud, dedicatee of "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." Humphrey continues:

"I remember debating with him his tremendous admiration for Mozart, and asking if Haydn didn't display greater inventiveness, and Ben saying that Mozart's greatness often lay in when he actually didn't change key, he didn't modulate. And the observation that it was particularly for his operas that Mozart had to be remembered."

I can see by your Tradition Rep of 3 that you agree.

Henry Holland said...

Yeah, love them both, the rest, meh, especially Abduction from the Seraglio, which I spent a decade in the opera house one night wishing it would just end. And if I never (by accident) hear another of those damn cookie cutter piano concertos, still too soon....

Britten also loathed Brahms, so reason #4,892 to love Lord Britten of Aldeburgh.

sfmike said...

Dear Henry: Leave those cookie cutter piano concertos alone. One day, when you mellow out, you'll realize that they are simple doorways to god.

jolene said...

I agree with your statement that some piano concertos are "simple doorways to God"!

Thanks for your comments, Mike, a lot of food for thought. It's hard not to invalidate my bewildering biases completely, given my newness to the genre, but it's challenging me to be openminded about it and piqueing my iinterest in a topic that I previously had no interest in whatsoever. Alex Ross's book is helping immensely to shed light into a topic that was so esoteric to me.

We had a rude audience member too in front of us. Granted, the couple next to us couldn't keep their hands off of each other and were making rustling noises throughout the Debussy piece, but the woman in front of us shot back a rather shockingly rude insult, more apparent with the house up to allow the audience to read the text in the program. The amorous couple moved, or left, after the Debussy piece.

The Opera Tattler said...

That's too bad about the Beethoven, it sounds like the tempi must have been better on Friday. Still it wasn't the most exciting performance I've heard of the work.

Komsi has loud taste in dresses! The one you've photographed is just so shiny. She wore hot pink on Friday.

Henry Holland said...

Dear Henry: Leave those cookie cutter piano concertos alone.

No problem, NO problem at all!

One day, when you mellow out, you'll realize that they are simple doorways to god.

Wow, condescending much? "Mellow out", what is this, the parking lot before a Dead show?

One day, when you mellow out, you'll realize that they are simple.

There, fixed that for you.

I'm an atheist, so "doorways to god" makes about as much sense as a concept as sdlkjfa aslkjflkkjl lkdjflsadjf tlksjad ljsdlfkjs does.

sfmike said...

Dear Henry: Oh, dear. You wave your superior musical taste around like a weapon, disdain Mozart's piano concertos for their grotesque simplicity, and wear your atheism like a merit badge. Excuse me for my condescension, but you don't sound like a lot of fun, Mr. Holland.

Henry Holland said...

Excuse me for my condescension, but you don't sound like a lot of fun, Mr. Holland.

Yeah, sorry I harshed your mellow by writing not-totally-reverent-things about W.A. Mozart's music and confirming via my own listening habits your premise that "if you listen to enough of it, you start developing an ear for the conventions and you can confidently state, 'Hate this, love that, haven't decided'". Maybe I should have mentioned someone that we can *all* agree sucks, like, hmmm.....Telemann?

As for the atheist bit, the "doorways to god" thing in relation to Mozart's music is sooooo early-to-mid 1980's, that's what I was mocking. Thanks Peter Shaffer!

Jolene, if you're still around at this point :-), I don't know if you have any recordings in the modernist style, but I'd suggest the following:

Boulez and Lutoslawski and Birtwistle and Dutilleux and Ligeti and if you're operatically inclined, Berg

They can be found cheaper online than at the links, at the two Amoeba's in the Bay Area or probably through iTunes. It's kind of sad that you make listening to modernism seem like being stuck in an airport for 12 hours because one has missed a connecting flight :-D but I think all those pieces are fairly accessible to someone who mostly listens to the standard rep, especially the sensuously beautiful Repons by Boulez. Hope this helps!

sfmike said...

Dear Mr. Holland: Do take your insults somewhere else and please stay away. Jolene, pay no attention to that deranged man behind the curtain.