Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Father Never Knew Charles Ives

The father of composer John Adams (above) also never knew Charles Ives but that didn't stop Adams from writing the beautiful and whimsically titled concerto for orchestra, "My Father Knew Charles Ives" a couple of years ago. Adams was at Davies Hall last Saturday as part of a memorial for the superb music writer Michael Steinberg, who wrote the concert notes for the San Francisco Symphony for the better part of the last three decades.

Adams read from an unpublished memoir by Steinberg about being one of the Jewish Kindertransport children who made it out of Germany to England in 1939, and though it was fairly interesting, the choice of material seemed strange. Adams was followed by somebody named Robert Guter, who read us four poems, and then pianist Garrick Ohlsson played Beethoven's Largo e mesto, from Piano Sonata in D major, Opus 10, no, 3. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, Robert Guter got up again and started reading more goddamned poems, and we slipped out of the auditorium. A few ushers who were lined up for that evening's concert assignments told us, "The memorial was a bit of a shame. Michael Steinberg was always so droll. It didn't really capture his spirit."

We returned to Davies Hall after dinner for the final performance of an interesting pairing, an early Schubert Mass and Charles Ives' hour-long Concord Piano Sonata which had been reorchestrated by the recently deceased "spatial" composer Henry Brant and turned into "A Concord Symphony." The San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto (above) had the lion's share of soloist duties in Schubert's Mass No. 2 and she was just fine, but the voice that struck me as special was tenor Thomas Cooley (below, middle right) who only sang for about sixty seconds.

He's been performing for the last decade in Germany, specializing in Rossini, Mozart and early music composers, and he's somebody to hear. When he appears with the Philharmonia Baroque in Haydn's "Creation" next year, it will probably be worth a special trip.

"A Concord Symphony" was preceded by one of Michael Tilson Thomas' lectures to the audience, and he warned us that the "Emerson" first movement was "craggy," and then went on to delineate what the rest of the symphony entailed. I found myself wishing that I could just read Michael Steinberg's description instead (alas, he never got around to this piece). However, the performance by MTT and the orchestra itself was wonderful and committed.

Though I have fairly sophisticated musical tastes, this was one concert where I wished I'd done some serious homework with a recording, because the piece was way too dense to absorb on a first hearing, particularly that Craggy Emerson movement which seemed to blast away cacophonously forever. The Hawthorne second movement was altogether enchanting, however, and Peter Grunberg (above left) was a heavenly celesta player.

The short Alcotts third movement was charming, and then the Thoreau finale meandered moodily all over the place. The beautiful young couple sitting in front of us looked positively bored out of their minds and I could understand their frustration, but the more I think about the performance and the music, the more I'd like to hear it again. The Symphony and MTT deserve congratulations on not playing it safe.


Kathy said...

I enjoyed reading your take on A Concord Symphony. If you'd like to hear it again, I recommend the Innova CD--part of their Henry Brant Collection (see

I find the piece viscerally exciting and can't imagine how anyone could be bored by it. Emerson does take repeated hearings--unless one is a composer. I am fortunate to have heard the work live several times (I'm HB's widow). But MTT's performance was so incredibly clear! And the hall so resonant.

In the splitting hairs department: The 2nd movement (Hawthorne) is the scherzo.

sfmike said...

Dear Kathy: Wow. That's the strongest testimonial to the quality of the performance that I can imagine.

I saw your late husband grooving out on the organ with his 2001 Other Minds/SF Symphony commission, "Ice Field." Absolutely loved the piece and took a few photos during the performance which you are welcome to have. And I believe in splitting hairs/accuracy. I'll change the "scherzo" designation in the text.