Tuesday, August 25, 2009

San Francisco Symphony 2009-10 Preview

Literal signs of high musical culture have been sprouting all month around the Civic Center, including the San Francisco Symphony whose opening night gala is in a couple of weeks on Wednesday, September 9th. There have been a number of complaints recently at the San Francisco Classical Voice site about how Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony don't play enough living, local composers (the site is bankrolled by would-be composer Gordon Getty, and you can make your own conclusions). They also point out how unadventurous MTT's programming has become since he blazed into the Music Director role with his American Mavericks series over a decade ago.

I don't particularly buy the argument, particularly since the list of composers they advocate for are nowhere near the top of my list of neglected great composers. For instance, I really don't need to hear another note of music by either the late Andrew Imbrie or the living Jake Heggie.

It is true that this year's season isn't as adventurous as the last two, but overall, there are individual concerts that will appeal to everyone, from the beginner hearing their first Brandenberg Concertos live to jaded old audiophiles like myself who are excited hearing something brand new and who tend to get impatient with Brandenberg Concertos unless they are insanely, brilliantly done.

I decided to see how this year's San Francisco Symphony season stacked up in "adventurousness" with a few other orchestras in the country, and looked at the nine-month seasons for Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia during the same period. The results were as follows: Philadelphia under Charles Dutoit is Warhorse Central this year with some of the dullest programming imaginable. New York under the young new music director Alan Gilbert is much more interesting than its previous recent seasons under Lorin Maazel, but the programming is essentially very dull and conservative with a few exceptions.

Boston under James Levine is probably the closest to San Francisco in terms of its eclectic mix of the new and the tried-and-true. For every Elliot Carter premiere, for instance, there's an all-nine-Beethoven-symphony survey by Levine. So I'd call it a draw between Boston and San Francisco, except as my friend Patrick Vaz would immediately point out, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gets to play in the 1900 Boston Symphony Hall which is considered "acoustically, among the top three concert halls in the world and is considered the finest in the United States" while the San Francisco Symphony plays in Davies Hall. We're giving Boston the nudge here.

The real surprise was that the Los Angeles Philharmonic under new music director Gustavo Dudamel has the most consistently lively and interesting programming over the next year of all the five orchestras. Besides genuinely varied repertory, they are having a two-week festival in late November and early December called "West Coast, Left Coast" that is featuring most of the interesting composers in the Bay Area such as John Adams, Paul Dresher, Mason Bates, and Ingram Marshall along with Cowell, Harrison, Partch, Zappa, Cage and Salonen. The second festival is at the end of April next year, and is called "America and Americans" with major works by Bernstein, Golijov, Estevez and more.

However, Los Angeles is just one bad day away from the apocalypse, as my friend Markus Crouse once said, so let's concentrate on San Francisco. Here's a list of the concerts by the San Francisco Symphony that are attracting me on paper:

The first three weeks of the season is a Mahler festival with the First Symphony leading off, which will be followed the next week by a potpourri of works that are going to be changing each night depending on what they want to put into the latest "Keeping Score" television show, and it wraps up with the Fifth Symphony preceded by the Italian mystic Scelsi's "Hymnos."

The next highlight is Bach's six-part "Christmas Oratorio" in December in place of the usual "Messiah." It's incredibly beautiful music and it's actually about the Birth of Jesus rather than the Death of Jesus.

In January, there is a two-week residency by British composer George Benjamin who will be premiering a fistful of his works and conducting one of the concerts. The week following has MTT conducting with Yo-Yo Ma for Shostakovich's cello concerto no. 2, along with obscure pieces by Sibelius, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. At the end of January, MTT takes to the piano for a Mozart concerto which is bracketed by Stravinsky's "Octet" and complete "Pulcinella."

In February, MTT leads the orchestra in another Schubert Mass (#2) along with the Symphony premiere of Henry Brant's orchestration of Ives' "Concord Sonata," which is supposed to be an amazing piece of music. In March, he conducts Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony which I have somehow managed to never hear live even though it may be my favorite. Another big choral concert will be in May with Stravinsky's rarely heard "Threni" and the full version of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe." June ends with MTT conducting Poulenc, Villa-Lobos and Ravel sharing the program with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and the final concert of the year is Berlioz' strange, beautiful version of "Romeo et Juliette."

If you're feeling poor like me, there is the welcome news that the Center Terrace seats right behind the orchestra, which are great fun to sit in, have been reduced in price from $25 to $15 in honor of Tilson Thomas' fifteenth year with the orchestra. The rush ticket hot line for day-of-performance tickets is (415) 503-5577. They used to be $20 and may be the same price this year. If you'd like to check out subscription packages, click here for the symphony website.

Finally, a note to the Marketing people in charge of outdoor signage. Your color schemes and typography are lovely, but the photos of Michael Tilson Thomas, Alexander Barantschik and Nadya Tichman look like they've been airbrushed to Playboy Centerfold standards which gives me the giggles every time I walk underneath them.


Anonymous said...

I heard them do Brandenburg No. 5 a few years ago and it wasn't fun. For whatever reason, they gave the (very difficult, very exposed) harpsichord part to Robin Sutherland, who, being a pianist, was unused to the lighter touch, so that while he played all the right notes he also played a great many others that lay in between them. This was especially painful during the big first movement cadenza which was just a schmear.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I actually had other things to point out even before I ran across myself pointing out the superiority of Boston's Hall.

I think SFCV is making a valid point about the lack of living local composers (and they had quite a list of possibilities, not just Imbrie and Heggie and Getty). On the other hand, the Boston press made the same point about Ozawa back when I lived there.

And they're both right. Just because our symphony is on the slightly less conservative end doesn't mean it's actually adventurous. It means all American symphonies do a bad job supporting contemporary or risky music.

Yes, the audience is partly to blame for that, but so is the administration and the marketing department, particularly when the symphony and the city itself like to consider themselves adventurous. I have no problem with people pointing out they really aren't all that daring. It's a way of calling them on their pretenses.

And I have to say about Dutoit and Philadelphia: I was a bit disappointed that when I was there last June the warhorsey program was Debussy's Images and the Shostakovich 5 (the week after I could have heard the Berlioz Requiem). But their playing of the Shostakovich, in particular, was just brilliant and blew SF out of the water. If warhorses were always played like that I'd be happy with a warhorse schedule.

Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: So you heard one great Shostakovich Fifth with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I heard one great Shostakovich Fifth with Rostropovich conducting the San Francisco Symphony right before he died, and it was an awesome performance. However, that has little to do with how the same orchestra plays the same piece for MTT (not so awesome). And if you were going to every concert this year in Philadelphia, I doubt if you'd be in consistent bliss.

Please do check out the Philadelphia Orchestra website. It's sort of a navigational nightmare trying to find out their actual schedule, and then when you do find it, I'm warning you. It's Case Book Study Boring Symphonic Classics. I like Dutoit but Jesu, the programming reads like a Reader's Digest Classical Music 10-LP set.

John Marcher said...

When I first read through SFS's schedule for the upcoming season I was also initially disappointed, but during a second examination I found there are perhaps a dozen concerts I would happily attend. Having said that, I don't see anything that holds the promise to thrill like some of last year's concerts did, but I know I'm going to be proven wrong on that count at some point during the season.

The unhappy truth for San Franciscans is that Los Angeles is undoubtedly the most adventurous orchestra in the country and has been for a few years. Salonen took the LA Phil to level few would have ever thought possible and it looks like Dudamel is going to at least make a real effort to carry on the challenging programs that are a large part of Salonen's legacy.

Add in a comparison of SF's and LA's opera companies (not to mention theater,other performing arts and museums) and it should be obvious to anyone interested in the arts that the city so oftened ridiculed for being a vapid cultural wasteland has quietly become a mecca for them, only surpassed in this country by New York.

Now bring on the hate if you must, but it's all true. Read it, weep and then get online. Thankfully, fares on Southwest remain low so I'll be down there a few times over the next nine months to see and hear programming that won't be found in these parts.

Matthew Hubbard said...

So, what are we in San Francisco? Two bad days from the apocalypse? Three?

It's certainly no more than one bad week away. Or maybe it's that I live in Oakland.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Mike, You may well be right that a whole season of standards in Philadelphia would ultimately disappoint me, but as you and others have pointed out, the ultimate proof is in the concerts themselves.

Rostropovich conducting Shostakovich was a special event anywhere. Dutoit conducting Shostakovich is standard programming in Philadelphia. So your point isn't quite clear to me -- are you saying MTT (or his conducting of certain composers) is the problem?

The Philadelphia Orchestra doesn't bask in a reputation for adventurous programming. The San Francisco Orchestra does, and I think the reputation is undeserved. I'm not saying they don't do a lot of great stuff. They're just not living up to their hype.

I haven't checked Philadelphia's upcoming season, but I'm happy to take your word for it. As far as websites go, though, I don't think SF's is particularly good either. I was toying with the notion of doing a sort of "monthly preview" entry but abandoned it because the symphony website was just too much of a pain to deal with (and that was for the slow month of July).

Janos Gereben said...

About those $15 tickets to SFS (I mused in http://www.sfcv.org/article/music-news-august-11-2009#anchor6 whether on MTT's 40th anniversary - ins'allah - the price will go to $40...:) - I will believe when, and what, I see.

The small print says the $15 tickets are available at SOME performances, and I'd like to hear from the first actual person who actually takes advantage of this alleged stimulus program. Signed, Skeptical-of-All-Marketing-Campaigns.

Civic Center said...

Dear Janos:

I think what they mean about the $15 Center Terrace tickets being available at SOME performances is that they won't be available at programs where the chorus is featured because that's where they sit, stand and sing. Otherwise, I think they're available at all the other performances.

LouisianaJones said...

Yes, you got it exactly right Michael. Information about the Symphony's rush ticket policy can be found here:

Thanks for giving us all your season highlights!

San Francisco Symphony PR Dept.

Civic Center said...

Dear rootlesscosmo: Baroque era music doesn't usually fare too well in the cavernous Davies Hall, but I've heard a few exceptions.

Dear Patrick: You're absolutely correct that my analogy was faulty. Let me put it another way. It would be like going to see MTT conducting "Sheherezade" in SF as a tourist, and it being astonishingly good. You'd think it was like this every week, and it ain't necessarily so.

Dear Mark: As a former Los Angeles boy, I've always known that city was culturally richer in just about every way than San Francisco. Having said that, I will always prefer the San Francisco Opera House to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Haven't been inside the Disney Hall yet but am looking forward to it. Also, don't count out Chicago.

Dear Matty: Los Angeles just feels perched on the edge of disaster in ways that are unique. It's also one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world which has been thoroughly scarred over the last 100 years by car culture in the most hideous ways. That adds to the feeling.

Dear Louisa: Thanks for the confirmation. See you this fall.

AphotoAday said...

Aren't those hanging baskets full of flowers just gorgeous!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Hi. Let me ask, if you still know Markus Crouse ? He is about 43 years old and Georgetown University and moved to LA in 2000 (a teacher). I am a friend who lost touch. If you know him can you pass along my email? My name is Loy Halm, a Cambodian he knows. My email address is LoyOfBos on yahoo. Thank-you. I would love to hear from him, that he is OK (i hope).